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Optical storage still evolving

Prognosticators weigh the merits of "future" technologies and the tried and true solutions of today.

Technology giant Pioneer announced in July that it had succeeded in developing a 16-layer read-only optical disc with a vast storage capacity of some 400 GB -- or 25 GB per layer. In the past, multilayer optical discs have not always been able to deliver clear signals from each recording layer due to crosstalk from adjacent layers as well as transmission loss. Using the optical disc production technology that it has developed in the DVD field, Pioneer solved these problems by, among other things, using a disc structure that can reduce crosstalk from adjacent layers.

In its announcement, Pioneer predicted promising developments from the technology, mostly related to storing a lot more information in a much denser form.

Still, analysts say that it may not be time to contemplate a switch to optical storage,-- let alone cut a purchase order. "Pioneer definitely has lived up to its name 'pioneer' with this announcement. Packing 16 discs together is an impressive feat," notes David G. Hill, analyst at the Mesabi Group. That said, though, Hill argues the technology may not be a good fit for the data center but, instead, may be more suitable for storing video and for archiving at the consumer level. Furthermore, he notes, "With SATA drives routinely offering 1 TB and with two new announcements of native tape media that are also at 1 TB, the product should have little or no effect on the enterprise-class market."

Similarly, Greg Schulz, analyst with StorageIO, says the development really only has relevance when compared to Blu-ray and DVD format. Likewise, says Schulz, every year we hear talk about holographic storage being just around the corner. Probably it will stay that way for a few more years. "If you are holding your breath for that, you had better get a scuba tank," he adds. However, admits Schulz, Blu-ray is an alternative for some applications. "If you can't hold your breath any longer, we are starting to see Blu-ray both on the low-end of the market and in specialized verticals such as video and compliance-related data preservation."

Schulz says, in fact, many of the technologies that are still central to everyday operations are "zombie technologies -- things like disk and tape -- that were declared dead long ago." However, as he notes, these technologies continue to be relevant because they keep improving and nothing more cost effective has come along yet. Eventually, Schulz predicts, data storage will be accomplished on a mixture of RAM-based or flash-based solid state memory, perhaps even with holographic storage in the mix. But, he says, don't expect to see magnetic media"" disappear for a long time.

Furthermore, he notes, technology transitions occur within a complex environment of tradeoffs. ""As newer technologies such as flash come in to play, it will take some of the performance pressure off of disk, allowing the focus to move to factors such as price and availability." Likewise, says Schulz, disk technology helps keep tape in the mix because tape can provide a very cost-effective tier of storage below disk.

Optical is the odd one out in the storage picture. "In the consumer space, it has pretty much gone off the cliff, though there is still a place for it in archiving and preserving information," says Schulz.

Schulz adds that developments in nano-technology could strengthen the performance of solid state storage and perhaps even of disk and tape media. "It could turn out to be a factor in cutting price and in enhancing performance," he adds.

For his part, John Webster, an analyst at Illuminata, sees some transitions happening sooner, particularly with flavors of solid state storage. "Obviously, EMC is becoming a huge proponent of this technology [the EMC Symmetrix DMX-4 storage system and EMC Clariion] and is making it a major selling point. But "the problem is that many in the user community aren't sure there is a need for that kind of performance whereas the few who have experienced solid state -- and know what to do with it -- are very much converts," adds Webster.

Likewise, Webster says others may be missing a key factor that could favor optical: the vast amount of storage that keeps piling up everywhere. "Consider medical images -- there may only be a requirement to keep those files for a certain period of years but, in fact, there is a strong likelihood that organizations will want to retain a lot of that information permanently because of its value for research," he says. In such instances, when organizations are simply reluctant to say good bye to data, optical may offer advantages.

"Not only is it affordable, but it also has a much longer refresh cycle than anything magnetic -- perhaps 50 years or more," he says.

"We are now in a world where there is a kind of unwritten guarantee that the things we store will always be there, and that's going to be a driver for more and more storage strategies in the future," says Webster.

About the author: Alan Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology, particularly data storage.

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