Is holographic data storage the next big thing?

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Every email you send, every selfie you take, every TikTok video you post adds to the amount of digital data in the world. And this pile of data is growing at an astonishing rate. According to recent estimates, by 2025 there will be approximately 200 zettabytes of data circulating around the world. To give you an idea of ​​how much this represents, a zettabyte contains a whopping 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, the basic unit of digital storage and processing. That’s a lot of information.

However, current data storage methods are not meeting demand. Today, data is stored either on solid-state drives or spinning hard drives. However, it is increasingly stored in the cloud, which refers to software and services accessed through the Internet.. And storage capacity of these methods no longer increases exponentially as it once did. Ant Rowstron leads a team at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, researching future cloud solutions. New technologies tend to take off slowly, he explains. But eventually he reaches a state of steady progress. “That’s when you get these rules like ‘The capacity doubles every two years’ or ‘Your computing power doubles every 18 months’, and then as the technology ages, it renews itself. and it becomes much, much harder to get those gains,” he says.

This is what happens to the current technologies that we use for data storage. They get to the stage where the need for storage grows faster than the storage capacity. And these technologies were all designed before the advent of the cloud.

Researchers are looking into glass and DNA for archive storage. But for “hot” data, i.e. data that needs to be updated frequently, such as emails or financial records, another solution is needed. For that, Rowstron and his colleagues at Microsoft Research Cambridge teamed up with Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing service, to find the solution – and it could be holographic storage.

Speed ​​of light

Rather than recording data on the surface of the medium (as in solid state or disk storage), holographic storage records data throughout the volume of the medium, using light – in this case, a laser – to record data in a tiny hologram inside a small cube-shaped crystal. Each block of data, called a “page”, can hold around a hundred kilobytes of data, and by adjusting the angle of the laser beam, multiple pages can be saved in a volume or area of ​​space.

To read the data pages, a pulse of light is diffracted by the hologram and captured by a camera, reconstructing the data page. Dramatic improvements in smart phone technology have helped make this more feasible.

While holographic storage would certainly help find space for the growing mountains of data, storage capacity isn’t the most important consideration, according to Benn Thomsen, principal investigator at Microsoft Research. The big issue is the speed at which you can access the data. To access data on a hard drive, the most commonly used storage method today, he says, the drive must spin and position the data under the head that reads the data. This is not a problem when trying to access data on your personal computer’s disk. However, in the cloud, many people try to access the data stored on the same disk. The disk has to go back and forth to find what you’re looking for, what I’m looking for, what someone else is looking for. This causes bottlenecks, says Thomsen. With holographic storage, you don’t move the media, you route or direct the light to where the data is stored, which is much faster. Removing the need for mechanical movement of the storage medium, he says, is one of the greatest innovations of this technology.

Greener storage?

Holographic storage could also be more durable. Because this storage medium has no moving parts, it potentially has a much longer lifespan. Getting rid of drives that have reached the end of their lifespan is a big deal, Thomsen says. “In order to make sure that we get rid of all customer data, and that no one can access it,” he says, “we literally have to put the hard drives in a big grinder and then grind them to dust.” In contrast, with holographic storage, the UV light completely erases the data, leaving the medium ready to be used over and over again, indefinitely.

Don’t expect holograms to fill data centers anytime soon. The technology is still in the research stage and, according to Rowstron, “there is a long way from bench research to an actual product.” But, he adds, “we are optimistic”. During this time, we will continue to take photos and write emails to store in these holograms as soon as they are ready.

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