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Microsoft Store Superman on Glass

Storing data in the cloud was a questionable concept years ago, but now it’s commonplace. Many of us rely on cloud services to access our data. In some cases, perhaps without realising it, since many phones automatically put your photos and videos in the cloud to free up device storage.

All we need to do to use these cloud services is sign up. Many of the large providers offer a certain capacity free. To increase your storage, you usually have to pay a fairly reasonable monthly or yearly fee.

The simplicity of using these services is nothing quite like maintaining them. All your data is physically stored somewhere. First, though, somewhere needs to hold the data. Those data centres must be built, powered, and cooled. The devices within them, whether hard disks or tapes or whatever, are prone to wear.

With the amount of data being created increasing exponentially, it means cloud providers have to keep expanding their space and adding new storage devices. It’s a growing problem and the hunt for the next, greatest storage medium continues to hot up.

Research has been going into glass for many years, but Microsoft recently announced a breakthrough in what they call Project Silica. The benefit of glass is that it doesn’t break down and is resistant to data corruption of heat and floods – common natural disasters that destroy data.

Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK partnered with University of Southampton for their research which has currently been going for three years. They aim to develop a storage solution that supports cloud computing, instead of personal devices.

This is because when you start from scratch by working for something on the cloud, “you can think about everything on a completely different scale”. That’s according to Ant Rowstron, principal researcher and deputy lab director at Microsoft Research.

Microsoft partnered with Warner Bros to demonstrate the possibilities of Project Silica. For this, they stored the 1987 film Superman on a 7.5cm by 7.5cm segment of glass. That’s smaller than the celluloid which the studio uses in their archives now. Microsoft also put the Windows 10 code base on a 2.5cm by 2.5cm piece of quartz glass.

The reason this is possible today is due to improvements in infrared lasers. These femtosecond lasers are fast and precise – this is beneficial because if the laser is too strong, the glass is at risk of cracking. Project Silica does something unique by building up layers of data on voxels, which Rowstron describes as icebergs sitting within the glass. This data is then read by a light.

The technology isn’t good to go right now, of course. It needs to be scaled. At the moment, glass can only be written to once, unlike reusable media like tape or hard drives. It also took days to put Superman on the glass. Although, three years ago that process would have taken months, so improvements are being made. There’s also a cost problem, which isn’t so much because of the glass but because of the lasers.

Nevertheless, providing these scale challenges can be tackled, researchers believe that glass the size of a DVD could hold 360 terabytes of data. It’s an exciting future.


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