Making a Clearer Case in Data Storage

Progress reported in industry's bid for commercial holographic storage

Holographic storage—the ability to store data three dimensionally for high-density capacity and speed—still has light-years to go before it is an off-the-shelf product.

The technology, which promises to store billions of bits on a device the size of a postage stamp, is still in the invention phase. But Lucent Technologies Inc. and its research arm, Bell Laboratories, said they have cleared a major hurdle that until now has prevented holographic storage from becoming a commercial product.

Lucent officials said the company has designed a stable proprietary medium—something that resembles a transparent CD or DVD—that can make this radical technology viable.

Holographic technology could enable IT managers to store more data on smaller devices and transfer the data faster. But some—worried about such issues as a lack of standards and reluctant to take great risks in such an important area as storage—said it could be several years before holographic storage is accepted.

Inventors have been stymied in attempts to make holographic memory a commercial technology because previous attempts to use crystals and lithium nibate cubes for holography proved impractical. And attempts to find a better medium often result in the deterioration of data after frequent use.

"Up until recently, that has been the main stumbling block in the holographic storage technology. Now, we have a new medium, so you can read the data a thousand times with no deterioration of the data," said Nelson Diaz, president and CEO of InPhase Technologies, in Longmont, Colo., which recently spun off from Lucent to continue holographic memory research.

"Now we have to develop a product that writes the data and reads it back [on the same device]," Diaz said.

InPhase executives said they are about two years away from developing a holographic storage product. IT managers now store information one bit at a time in a serial pattern along the length of a magnetic tape. Unlike other storage methods, where data is placed only on the surface of the disk, holographic storage records data throughout the material and stores it in page formats, each containing millions of bits.

Since all bits contained in a holographic page are stored in overlapping page formats, the transfer rate can be as high as 1GB per second. Higher-density capacity means data is stored and retrieved faster.

"Its so dense that it completely changes the amount of storage you can put into something the size of a nail," said Arun Taneja, an analyst with The Enterprise Storage Group Inc., in Milford, Mass. "If [InPhase] breaks these technology barriers, then it could completely change the capacity paradigm."

Imation Enterprise Corp., of Oakdale, Minn., a provider of data storage media, will be working with InPhase to develop holographic disks with the potential to store 125GB of data in a removable 5.25-inch disk, with read rates greater than 30M bps. That equals 27 4.7GB DVDs. Imation officials said the transfer rate will be about 25 times faster than with todays DVD media.

By the fourth generation, holographic products are expected to store about a terabyte of information on a single disk—with 150 times the transfer rates of current DVDs, according to Imation officials.

Analysts expect that commercial products probably will hit the market in about five years. "The first few years will be experimental," Taneja said. "None of these guys are going to put their mission-critical data on it at first. And God knows how many years it is going to take to put standards in place."

Min Christopherson, director of IT at DNA Sciences Inc., in Fremont, Calif., likewise doesnt expect holographic storage to take off soon. Unlike networking, storage is not considered an area in which to gamble on experimental technology.

"People are less experimental with storage devices. Retention is the name of the game in storage. Then, there are no standards. That worries me," Christopherson said.

In an industry where you still cant get a Brocade Communications Systems Inc. switch to work with a Gadzoox Networks Inc. switch, Christopherson said he wonders how long it will take to standardize an alternative storage method like holographic storage.

"There is some bickering between vendors in the storage [industry], and I think that will hurt that market," he said. "So something like [holographic storage] is going to take a long time."

Others are not as conservative, taking the view that a radically new technology can move from the testing lab into customers hands.

"If someone would have told you in 1994 that you would be putting your mission-critical information on a handheld [personal digital assistant], you would not have believed them. But you do today, and so do I," said Eric Goldfarb, CIO and chief technology officer of Macmillan USA, based in Indianapolis. "We just have to sit back and learn ... and keep an open mind."