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Holographic storage promises 10 TB disks

InPhase and Optware will finally ship the first commercial holographic storage disks this year.

While the optical storage industry is caught up in the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD debate, it seems as if the battle lines...

are being drawn for what might turn out to be the next standards skirmish: holographic storage.

Work on the technology began more than 40 years ago, and two companies -- InPhase Technologies of Longmont, Colo., and Japan's Optware Corp. with its Holographic Versatile Disc (HVD) -- will finally ship the first commercial offerings late this year. InPhase's first Tapestry drive, the HDS-300R, will use 300 GB write once disks designed for professional archiving, complete with RFID identifiers. It has a SCSI interface, a 20 MBps transfer rate, an MTBF of 100,000 hours, and a rewritable design will follow. InPhase says the drive will scale to 1.6 terabytes (TB) by 2009 and is planning other products like a 2 GB postage stamp-sized device and 210 GB on a credit card-sized unit.

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Optware's first HVD product, the HVD Pro Series 1000, will store 200 GB on a disk very similar -- and, in fact, somewhat compatible -- to DVD. By spacing the holographic cones at three micron intervals, the company has experimentally verified up to 3.9 TB at a transfer rate of 1 Gbps. Optware promises today's drives will be able to read tomorrow's disks, all the way up to the 3.9 TB version. Optware has submitted HVD to the European Computer Manufacturers Association for standardization, and it will eventually go to the International Standards Organization.

But in the meantime, both the Optware and InPhase drives are targeted at the enterprise storage market, with drives priced at approximately $12,000 and media at $120. Archival life is specified at greater than 50 years. Consumer-grade disks will probably not appear until after 2009, according to Optware founder and chief technology officer Hideyoshi Horimai.

The promise of holographic storage lies in its volumetric approach. Data isn't stored on the medium's surface; instead, it uses the third dimension by employing inverted cones approximately 500 microns thick at the top. Superimposed holograms share the same 3D space; the recording beam distinguishes them via different angles, phases or wavelengths. The theoretical limit is storing one bit in a cubic block the size of the light's wavelength. Practical densities will always remain much lower, but 10 TB or more on a CD-sized disk is feasible. Holographic drives don't store bits, but pages of 60 Kbit or more, writing one page with a single laser flash. They can read and write in parallel: To achieve higher transfer rates, the orange-colored disk doesn't have to spin any faster.

Though not currently championed by any standards bodies, Optware's technology could greatly expand the reach of holographic storage by enabling things like combination holographic/DVD drives, physical on-disk encryption or the use of holographic storage as an alternative to flash memory in consumer-device manufacturer items, like cell phones and camcorders.

While other systems require separately angled signal and reference beams, Optware's beams are collimated (parallel) on the same axis, reducing the bulk and complexity of a read/write mechanism. This so-called collinear system can use preformatted disks with address "pits" that are similar to today's CD and DVD technology. While a blue-green laser reads and writes, a red laser ensures accurate positioning. Because the servo positioning is so similar to today's DVD, it's conceivable that future drives might be able to use both. Collinear technology is also capable of physical on-disk encryption, which holds great promise for digital rights management and other sensitive applications, the company says.

For now, the challenge is to get holographic storage into the hands of the enterprise. "With a little bit of luck, they'll make their ship date," said Dr. Hans Coufal, manager, science and technology at IBM's Almaden Research Center. Then the real issue becomes gaining "credibility for a new technology."

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