Digital Data Duplicated In Glass

Your data will go bad eventually. It’s just a question if the Sun explodes before that.

Brian Benchoff
Dec 5, 2019 · 3 min read

The data on your hard drive will die one day, and it doesn’t matter if you have a spinning magnetic disk or an SSD. CDs and DVDs have the same problems, and even burning data into the fuses of chips has its own problems. Archiving data is a hard problem, and if there’s any place where that’s more apparent, you need only look at film studios. Here, movies are stored in separate locations on different mediums, and it all costs a lot every year. What’s needed is a medium to store data that just can’t be destroyed.

This is the backdrop researchers at Microsoft faced when working with Warner Brothers. They’ve developed Project Silica, a means of storing data in a 2cm thick piece of quartz glass using lasers. The best part? It can’t be destroyed, either by boiling, freezing, or just scouring the glass with a piece of steel wool.

The technology behind Project Silica uses the latest advances in femtosecond UV lasers and advanced optics to encode data in glass via a 3D nanoscale gratings and deformations. Basically, the data is in bits stored by deforming the glass from the inside.

This project has been around for a little more than a year, but recently the Project Silica team has produced real results. They’ve stored the entire Superman (1978) movie on a chunk of quarts glass 75mm square.

Warner Bros. approached Microsoft after learning of Project Silica to solve their massive, massive archival problem. Every movie in the Warner Bros. catalog, every animated short, and every TV show has to be stored in at least three places. Some storage mediums require the article in question to be moved to a new storage format. The ‘holy grail’ of archiving data is a storage medium that doesn’t break, doesn’t degrade, and doesn’t suffer from bit rot. So far, it looks like Project Silica does just that, and since it’s quartz it won’t break down over millions of years. You’ve just got to find some place to store it.

The current process of archiving digitally-shot movies involves separating all of the Red, Green, and Blue elements in each frame into Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow, storing each on black and white film stock. Each of the three colors are then stored on film. These archival prints can last a hundred years, but Project Silica stores everything on a glass square that will last for as long as humans walk the Earth.

The problem of data storage is becoming bigger and bigger as the years drag on. We’re simply producing more data, and all of that data has to be stored somewhere. It’s not really necessary to have all that data on a spinning hard drive or on a network, though; sometimes cold storage is enough. That’s where Project Silica shines. Combine this with a good library system, and all your data can live forever.


Brian Benchoff

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Discussing the business of hardware and hardware manufacturing.

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