Betting on a blue laser

It’s easy to take storage capacity for granted, especially because there always seem to be constant improvements in disks and tape media. However, there is at least one class of storage devices that has not increased capacity at the same pace as the others.

As you have probably guessed, I’m referring to MO (magneto optical) devices and media. Once the preferred (if not the only) target for long-term data archival, MO seems to have maxed out at around 9GB per media. This is surprising considering the media has seen a fourteen-fold increase over its initial capacity. Because of the limited capacity archiving large databases can generate large piles of media which are difficult to manage.

To accommodate increasing data capacities, companies have developed archival strategies that employ a range of media in addition to MO, including DVDs, disk drives and tapes. In fact, even Sony, one of the pillars of optical recording, recently made available a WORM (write-once, read-many) version of its AIT (Advanced Intelligent Tape) line, meant to be used as an alternative to MO media.

However, before you dismiss MO archiving as obsolete, let me tell you about a technological breakthrough -- Blue Laser. Blue Laser gives MO recording more capacity and performance than ever. In essence, Blue Laser makes available a sharper writing tool, which, when applied to the proper optical surface, makes for more compact and faster data recording. In addition, Blue Laser supports read-only and rewritable media, both desirable options for archiving.

At the Comdex show in Vegas recently, Plasmon mentioned an earful about its Blue Laser-based UDO (ultra density optical) media and drives. That parental pride is understandable, because Plasmon’s new technological offspring offers an amazing capacity of 30GB per medium with a fast transfer rate of 8MB per second and a seek time that falls in the disk drives’ performance range.

Compatibility is one point of concern, because UDO drives cannot read or write MO media.

Nevertheless, media of the two technologies are of the same size and can fit the same slots, which makes possible building libraries with both old and new drives to simplify ongoing management. However, Plasmon says that future UDO versions will be backward compatible with the current, and will double capacity every two years up to an expected 120GB per medium in 2007.

Plasmon expects UDO drives to sell to the public for about $3,000, while dual-sided, full capacity cartridges should be priced very competitively at around $60 each. Add to that a data-retention life of about 50 years, sensibly longer than old MOs and DVDs, and it’s easy to understand why Plasmon is proposing UDO as the single archiving format that sums up the best characteristics of disk drives, tape, DVD, and old MO media.

Toward that goal, UDO seems to have the backing of many other big names in the storage archival industry, including HP, which, similarly to IBM, Siemens and other partners, has a stake in promoting a successor to the old MO media and drives.

Nevertheless, in the fickle storage market even the best laid plans and alliances can be tripped up. I can’t help noticing that Sony is proposing what seems to be a competing product for UDO. But we’ll leave that for another column.

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