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Microsoft stores Superman movie on quartz glass in Azure cloud storage concept

Written by Tue 5 Nov 2019

Research team’s latest technique records data in three-dimensional pixels and uses machine learning for retrieval

Microsoft and Warner Bros have teamed up to store the 1978 movie Superman on a piece of quartz glass the size of a drinks coaster.

The achievement is part of a Microsoft Azure initiative called Project Silica, aimed at developing long-lasting storage technologies for the cloud that reduce the provider’s long-term storage costs and environmental footprint.

Compared to hard disks which wear out after three to five years and magnetic tape which lasts up to seven years, quartz glass storage could potentially last for centuries, as unlike other storage technologies you only need to write the data onto it once and the material is more robust.

As the glass doesn’t need to be stored at a constant temperature or in a moisture-free environment, the material also doesn’t require the energy intensive cooling that protects the vast data stockpiles stored in today’s data centres.

“We are not trying to build things that you put in your house or play movies from. We are building storage that operates at the cloud scale,” said Ant Rowstron, partner deputy lab director of Microsoft Research Cambridge in the United Kingdom, which collaborated with University of Southampton to develop Project Silica.

“One big thing we wanted to eliminate is this expensive cycle of moving and rewriting data to the next generation. We really want something you can put on the shelf for 50 or 100 or 1,000 years and forget about until you need it,” Rowstron said.

Project Silica was launched in collaboration with the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronic Research Centre in 2009. A team of interdisciplinary of physicists, optics experts, electrical engineers and researchers with storage backgrounds have since been investigating ways of encoding cold data onto glass using lasers.

While team initially worked with femtosecond lasers, its latest demostration uses infrared lasers to encode data in “voxels”, the three-dimensional equivalent of pixels. Whereas other optical storage media write data on the surface of materials, the team’s method stores data within the glass itself. To retrieve the data the team has coded machine learning algorithms that decode patterns created when polarised light shines through the glass.

“Storing the whole ‘Superman’ movie in glass and being able to read it out successfully is a major milestone,” said Mark Russinovich, Azure’s chief technology officer. “I’m not saying all of the questions have been fully answered, but 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?’”

Written by Tue 5 Nov 2019


Azure computer science Microsoft storage
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