Comment General Electric has been talking up its holographic storage technology again, reckoning it can succeed where Plasmon and others have failed, because of backward Blu-ray and DVD compatibility.
Currently holographic storage products inhabit a graveyard or deep freeze. InPhase is currently seemingly in hibernation - not dead but showing little sign of life - though with a late 2009 ship date coming for its troubled $18,000 Tapestry drive and $180 per CD-size disks. UDO developer Plasmon is dead and gone, with a slight phoenix possibility in the shape of its asset purchaser, AST.
Why does GE think it has a chance of making it with a storage technology that has dashed so many hopes already? There seem to be three reasons: better recording and reading technology, insufficient Blu-ray capacity, and backwards compatibility.
Holographic storage involves holograms, images of data, being stored in layers in a CD-sized disk's recording surface. The images are created by two laser beams and read by a laser beam. GE's researchers at its Applied Optics Laboratory managed to shrink these images, calling them micro-holograms. They achieved this to the point where the images were also reflective enough - 200 times more so than before - to be read by optics that could be used to read existing optical formats. A CD-size disk could store 500GB using this technology, with 1TB and greater capacity potentially possible in the 2011/2012 period.
This compares to InPhase's 300GB capacity, although InPhase has predicted a ramp up through 800GB to a 1.6TB capacity point and a 120MB/sec transfer rate. This was said to be appearing in 2010, but that was in 2007, so we'd better assume a 2012/2013 date if InPhase holds to its course. There is a deal of overlap here between GE and Inphase capacities and capacity roadmaps.
The 500GB capacity equals ten double-layer, 50GB Blu-ray disks, or 100 5GB DVDs. GE believes that drives using its technology could also read Blu-ray, DVD and even CD disks. This makes them, in theory, usable by consumers and thus increases their volume dramatically, compared to the professional archiving market addressed by Plasmon's UDO and the InPhase Tapestry development. This volume should enable a per-drive cost far lower than the $18,000 InPhase has suggested for its Tapestry.
We should bear in mind that GE is suggesting that consumer drives using its technology wouldn't appear until 2014 or 2015, though, suggesting that drive cost will be a problem in the early years.
Company representatives suggest that an entire 3D movie might be storable on a disk with its technology.
There is the implicit assumption here that downloading such movies will not be feasible, as network links will be too slow. Another assumption is that Blu-ray capacity will simply not be enough for the massive files needed by 3D movies and the like in a few years time. Blu-ray will run out of capacity by 2013 or so, according to this scenario.
The GE drive technology has a 3msec access period and transfers data at what is described as five times the DVD transfer rate. Assuming a 16x DVD writer runs at 21.13MB/sec, this implies 105.65MB.sec. At that speed, a 1TB GE technology disk would take 2.65 hours to write. However, GE says its disks could be replicated off a golden master in a factory at rates of 180 to 360 an hour.
Cost-wise, GE is suggesting 10 cents/GB or less for disk capacity when the drives and disks are introduced, as hopefully expected, in 2011/2012. At $0.10/GB, a 1TB disk would cost $100: far, far from cheap.
The replication speed should be okay for media content distribution. Customers looking to use GE's technology for archiving - the obvious initial market - may be concerned about the comparatively slow data write rate. Future consumers looking for a 3D movie-storing medium would be very concerned about a $100/disk cost, so that would need to come down enormously.
So far nobody has said anything about re-writable disks using GE's technology.
GE isn't going to manufacture drives and disks itself, and is looking instead to license the technology. Peter Lorraine, GE's lab manager, talking at an Emerging Tech conference last week, said that licence announcements could be expected soon. He also mentioned the notion of disks having the capacity of 100 Blu-ray disks, implying a 2.5TB or even 5TB capacity, gained by increasing the number of layers used for recording.
What is there to say that GE's holographic storage technology is not just the latest optical storage dust-biter? Blu-ray is not taking the market by storm, with a CH-DVD format posing competition for it in China. The Call/Recall 1TB holographic technology seems to be in the deep freeze. Inphase is trying to correct deficiencies in its drive revealed last year, and is currently as silent as the grave.
Despite what holographic storage boosters say about slow and short-lifetime tape, tape is here and tape is more reliable than it used to be. Much more so. We know 1.5TB LTO 5 drives are coming, with 3TB LTO 6 on LTO's roadmap and, insiders are whispering, two more LTO format generations with doubled capacities coming.
It's not as if GE has real money at risk here: at least, not "real" money in the "bet-the-company" InPhase sense. It's just an R & D exercise - although an impressive one - but GE's skin in the game is pretty thin and it has to talk up its technology, as it's got licensees to convince. A key is drive and disk volume and pricing. They have got to seem great value, compared to tape.
Tape owns the game for now and, if GE and it's putative licensees aim to make a dent in the tape market, convincing customers to move to a more expensive product could be a mug's game. ®