Raise your glass

In 2020 around 1.7 megabytes of data were created every second per person globally. The current storage for data, optical or magnetic, will not typically last longer than a century and uses large amounts of energy. Given the short lifespan of storage systems, we will soon have a serious data-storage problem.

With old data needing to be transferred to new storage and new data constantly created, there is an increasing need for long-lasting solutions to data storage. In recent years we’ve seen new solutions such as cloud computing and edge networking, but what is the next step? Microsoft believes the answer to be glass, specifically a hard silica glass encoded with data. 

Glass storage uses ultrafast laser optics and artificial intelligence (AI) to store data on quartz glass squares. The glass squares are encoded using a laser to create three-dimensional layered nanoscale gratings and deformations at various angles and depths. Machine learning algorithms then read the data back by shining polarised light through the glass square to decode images and patterns. 

The theorised glass storage was put to the test when Microsoft collaborated with Warner Bros. to transfer and retrieve data in the form of a movie. This collaboration saw the successful transfer of the 1978 Superman movie to a 75 by 75 by a 2-millimetre thick piece of quartz glass, approximately the size of a drink coaster. This success allowed Microsoft to test the durability of the storage system and other benefits it may have.

Glass half full

The technique for storing data on glass is similar to using glass or acetate records to play music but is more sophisticated and durable. The quartz glass squares have proven to be highly durable and to withstand exposure to ovens, microwaves, boiling water, metal scourers, demagnetisation and more. The durability of the glass means there is no requirement for energy-intensive air conditioning or dehumidifying systems, lowering the environmental footprint of large-scale storage. 

Besides the high durability and energy-saving potential of glass storage, other benefits of this system include driving down the cost of long-term storage by reducing the need to transfer data. “One big thing we wanted to eliminate is this expensive cycle of moving and rewriting data to the next generation,” said Ant Rowstron, partner deputy lab director of Microsoft Research Cambridge in the UK. “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.” Microsoft achieves this with glass storage as data only need to be written once onto the glass square and are preserved for centuries, unlike hard disks that only last three to five years or magnetic tapes that last five to seven years. 

Also, unlike tape storage, glass storage requires no spooling to view specific data. Instead, the algorithm can pinpoint any place on the glass square, reducing the lag time to retrieve information. 

Although the Superman test proves storage and retrieval of archival data is possible, it is still a long way off being applied at speeds fast enough for practical use in manufacturing. However, Microsoft hopes to have a viable system ready within the next decade. 

Once viable, Microsoft aims to create a large-scale ‘cold’ storage, meaning storage of archival data that holds value or that companies are required to maintain but don’t need frequent access to, such as medical records, financial records, regulation data, legal contracts and more. A glass storage system may not rival the cloud for distributing and retrieving data, limiting its usefulness to the manufacturing industry. However, it can store data, such as product warranty information, financial records and other important documents in a durable, environmental-friendly and low-cost way. 

To keep updated with the latest advances in data storage for manufacturing, check out the EU Automation’s Knowledge Hub