Researchers experiment with glass-based storage that doesn't require electronics cooling

A Microsoft Research project uses laser optics and artificial intelligence to store data in quartz glass.

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Hard drives aren’t going to be capacious enough for future data archiving and retrieval requirements, scientists believe, as applications such as artificial intelligence, wide-scale Internet of Things connectivity, and virtual and augmented reality take hold. Glass could be the answer.

Encoding in glass would have advantages over hard drives and other mediums, experts suggest. Holding capacity is greater, and the slivers of quartz being experimented with don’t need cooling or dehumidifying environments.

Microsoft Research, working in the UK along with the University of Southampton, announced that it has been able to store an entire movie on a quartz, glass-based storage medium. The team stored and retrieved a full-length Superman film on a small slab of the special material that measures about 3 inches square and less than a tenth of an inch thick.

“It looks like we’re now in a phase where we’re working on refinement and experimentation, rather asking the question ‘can we do it?’” said Mark Russinovich, Microsoft Azure’s chief technology officer, in a statement.

Laser improvements fuel glass-based storage technology

Improvements in laser technology are behind the proof of concept Microsoft Research dubbed Project Silica. The femtosecond infrared lasers that are used in the process function similarly to eye surgery lasers. Those kinds of laser beams are much better and more precise than traditional ones. They don’t crack the glass, for one thing.

The glass is, in fact, structurally changed by the laser, which means that the data could last as long as the material does—possibly centuries, unlike existing mediums like tape. It’s robust, too. Interestingly, even if one were to break the glass, the data remains encoded in the shards, the researchers say.

“It’s somewhat like creating upside down icebergs at a nanoscale level, with different depths and sizes and grooves that make them unique,” Microsoft said. Voxels, which are a three-dimensional version of a pixel, are embedded in the glass, one-time, rather than just written to the top, as occurs with other mediums. That three-dimensional aspect, along with the inherent opaqueness, helps with low-latency retrieval—the reading can occur rapidly along all of the axis (x, y and z).

Cloud storage alternatives

Glass isn’t the only potential replacement for old-school magnetic, solid-state and tape storage as the world increasingly collects data. Chemical, molecule and DNA options are all being suggested as potential alternatives to existing cloud storage.

Fitting transistors onto individual molecules is one answer, say researchers at Arizona State University.

Synthetic DNA is another proposed option. Large amounts of information last a long time in DNA; a 45,000-year-old human bone was DNA-decoded a few years ago, for example. Synthetic DNA could end up having similar advantages to that organic version, scientists think.

A third option, at a chemical level, is storing data on molecules and then dissolving that mix into liquids. Massive amounts of data could be held in small containers, Brown University has said of its experiments in that area.

Perhaps most interestingly, with all of these potential storage replacements (should any of them take off), the traditional environmental controls that we require for heat-generating electronics in data center environments would become moot.

“Quartz glass doesn’t need energy-intensive air conditioning to keep material at a constant temperature or systems that remove moisture from the air,” Microsoft said of Project Silica. “Both of which could lower the environmental footprint of large-scale data storage.”

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