Will Archives Ever Go Optical?


Conventional wisdom has it that solid-state disks (SSDs) will come to dominate Tier 1 and possibly Tier 2 storage, with conventional disk and tape media taking on a less active role. That view might have to make room for optical disks, however, as a number of new developments could finally turn the little platters into viable enterprise solutions.

The kickoff happened late last month when GE announced a breakthrough in holographic storage technology that it says can boost the capacity of a single DVD-sized disk up to 500 GB, about 100 times that of a standard DVD today and 20 times more than a Blu-ray disk. A commercial product is still a few years off, and while the company sees dollar signs in mostly consumer applications, it's also taking a bead on archival storage and is already in talks with several OEMs for drives, disks and players for that purpose.

Optical technology already has a number of advantages over traditional media, according to storage consultant Ara C. Trembly. They aren't subject to magnetic distortions like hard disks and have much faster data retrieval rates than tape. The disks can also be removed and stored very easily and can greatly reduce the storage footprint in large data centers. For data-intensive organizations like law firms and insurance companies, the combination of fast access and durability is very enticing.

To turn it into a true enterprise solution, however, we'll need tools like automated disk libraries and optical volume management. Fortunately, those systems are already available as firms try to drum up interest in current optical technology. Canada's StorageQuest, for example, recently launched the StorageQuest Centurion DiscHub Manager that brings optical management to the Centurion DiscHub system from DigiStore Solutions. The combination, which the companies are calling the Centurion DiscHub Workgroup, provides for a 100-slot optical library for about $3,000. With current disk technology, that provides about 500 GB of capacity, but if it can be adapted to the new GE technology, you could see libraries of up to 50 TB.

Of course, a lot of this will depend on whether optical technology can provide a cost-effect archival platform. But even here, optical is holding its own. Optimal Solutions reports that the cartridges for its Plasmon UDA (Ultra Density Optical) system cost $60 and can deliver upwards of 30 GB, about $2 per GB. The company combines the system with a hard disk array to form the Plasmon Archive Appliance, using optical as a long-term repository and the mechanical disks as a cache for high-speed retrieval.

We won't know the true cost of GE's holographic technology until actual products hit the channel, however, but it's a good bet that initial versions will cost a premium. The trick, then, is to engineer a system that offers either operational or ergonomic benefits so that enough early adopters will find value to bring down economies of scale for the rest of us.

Archives will still most likely offer a mix of disk and tape technology going forward, but I'm betting that optical solutions will own a larger share of that environment before too long.