Optical drives

GE pushes ahead with 500GB holographic disc storage

GE's technology development division is pushing ahead with plans to distribute its 500GB holographic optical storage disc technology and hopes to license it to manufacturing partners in the next few months.

The GE discs offer the same recording speed as Blu-ray—and 20 times the amount of storage space. GE first touted the technology in 2009. Unlike Blu-ray discs and DVDs, which store information on up to four layers at the surface of the disc, holographic optical discs use the entire substrate to store holograms, or three-dimensional patterns that represent bits of information.

Peter Lorraine, manager of the Applied Optics Lab at GE Global Research, said the "technology breakthrough" in holographic-recording speed could hasten its entry into the consumer electronics market. Ultimately, GE said it is working toward holographic discs that can store 1TB of data, which amounts to enough space to store all of the X-ray films of a large hospital on a single disc.

"Future micro-holographic discs using GE's proprietary material will read and record on systems very similar to a typical Blu-ray or DVD player," the company said in a statement yesterday.

GE plans to show off samples of the new media to companies interested in the technology. Those partners would be responsible for building hardware, such as the drive technology, for writing to and reading the optical platters.

Not everyone is convinced holographic optical storage has a future, citing problems with the price-performance ratio of the technology in the past.

"So, they're going to try this again?" said John Webster, a senior partner at market research firm the Evaluator Group. "It wasn't the media, but all the machinery you need to make it work. At a price-per-gigabyte or -terabyte level, it just didn't make sense."

GE is not alone in working on holographic disc technology. In 2007, for example, InPhase Technologies took aim at the magnetic tape drive market with the industry's first 300GB holographic optical disk. InPhase , which was spun off from Bell Laboratories, called its holographic product the Tapestry HDS-300R, and planned to sell the platters for $100 to $125 each.

InPhase had also planned a second-generation 800GB rewritable optical disc with data transfer rates of about 80MBps, with plans to expand disc capacity to 1.6TB by 2010. But the company vanished from the market before those products appeared. Last year, Venture Capital firm Signal Lake acquired a majority stake in InPhase and appointed its vice president of sales, Art Rancis, as the new CEO.

An InPhase board member called GE's efforts "a science project" and said his company is on track to redeliver its commercial holographic product within a year. The product map includes a library that can hold multiple drives.

GE's holographic disc technology at work reading a disc.

"I have in front of me a product, a 133mm disc." said Bart Stuck, the managing director and co-founder of Signal Lake. "I can stick it into any drive and have it write and then stick it in any other drive and have it read. GE has no drive."

"We have paid orders for product—real customers from real companies. We're building up a backlog of orders," Stuck added.

Stuck pointed a finger at InPhase's former management, saying that year after year the company devised plans to get product to the market, and year after year, failed. But with new management, Stuck is confident the company will ship in the next year.

Stuck also pointed out that InPhase's technology writes data at 20MBps compared with Blu-ray's data transfer speed of 4.8MBps.

"If they [GE] really do have a 500GB disc, I come up with 100,000 seconds to fill a disc. There's 86,400 seconds in a day. You do the math," he said. "Our customers tell us if it takes more than four hours to backup, they're not interested."

Mark Peters, an analyst with market research firm ESG, said that even if GE and InPhase get their products out the door, both face an uphill battle against established archive technologies such as magnetic tape. "There used to be an old joke that there's more written about optical disc than stored on it," he said. "There comes a point where it either sells or it doesn't."

Peters said optical disc originally had an advantage over tape media because the read/write head could go directly to the data, where tape drives need to spool through reels to find it. But seek times have been whittled down by technologies such as Linear Tape File System (LTFS), which allows users to run applications designed for disk drives on tape drives for faster data access.

Another obvious limitation is that industries have invested for decades in tape, so any new technology designed to replace it will have to be able to mimic it. For example, when hard disk drive backup systems came out five or so years ago, they were called virtual tape libraries (VTLs) because a software abstraction layer allowed corporate backup servers to "see" them as magnetic tape media.

GE said micro-holographic disc will differ from forerunners in that it will embed data directly onto virtual layers within plastic, stacking 20 blue-laser readable layers atop another to realize 500GB capacity.

GE Global Research, which has been working on the technology for eight years, said the micro-holographic storage material was first demonstrated at a trade show in April 2009. The discs are so similar to current optical storage technologies that future micro-holographic players will allow consumers to play back CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs on GE's optical drives.

"During the past two years, our research team has been focused on material improvements to increase the recording speed and making other key advances needed to ready GE's micro-holographic technology for market," Lorraine said in a statement. "With a speed to match Blu-ray's, discs made from GE's advanced micro-holographic materials are an attractive solution for both archival and consumer entertainment systems."

With higher recording speeds required in the professional archival industry, the latest breakthrough by GE researchers could advance the company's efforts to commercialize its micro-holographic technology, according to William Kernick, vice president of Technology Ventures for GE. He called the technology "an exciting new solution in the marketplace."

GE noted that there there's no reason its micro-holographic layers must take the form of a disc. Its Global Research team members remain agnostic about the shape future storage products using the material might assume.

"Ultimately, the material could become a superior storage alternative to magnetic tape," the company said in a statement .

[Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.]

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