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Cool tech: Storing data on glass with Microsoft's 'Project Silica'

1978's Superman movie stored on a piece of glass with Microsoft's Project Silica
1978's Superman movie stored on a piece of glass with Microsoft's Project Silica (Image credit: Microsoft)

Project Silica

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

At Ignite 2019, Microsoft unveiled 'Project Silica' (opens in new tab), a venture that Microsoft Research has been working on for the last several years that uses laser optics to store virtual data on quartz glass. This is tech designed primarily for storing archival data in the cloud and benefits from long-lasting reliability that stretches into centuries.

This is a huge deal, as storing data for a prolonged time today is a process that needs to be repeated to ensure that data stays good. Hard drives don't last forever and will deteriorate over time. Microsoft hopes that Project Silica will replace tape and optical drives for companies looking to store data for long durations in the cloud.

Unlike tape and optical drives, Project Silica is a block of high-purity quartz glass, which has data etched into it via femtosecond lasers. The data is stored in three-dimensions inside the glass and is read using a microscope imaging and polarized light source. The glass itself is stored in cold storage and can last for longer than a century.

It's early days for Project Silica

The tech is all very futuristic, but it's still very early days for Project Silica. I was shown a small piece of glass that had the Windows 10 ISO stored on it. This equates to around 3.5GB of data, which according to Principle Researcher at Microsoft Research, Dr. Ant Rowstron, took an entire night to write to the glass. That's not very fast, but Microsoft is hopeful this tech will improve and mature over time.

The machinery required to write the data to the glass today is huge, but Microsoft says this tech will be miniaturized over time, with read and write speeds also improving. Microsoft hopes to have this tech in use in Azure data centers within the next decade, so this isn't something you should expect to see in commercial use tomorrow.

It's important to point out that this method of storing data isn't intended for consumers. This is for big companies looking to store archival data. You move data onto it once and rarely touch it again. Microsoft doesn't anticipate this tech will replace storage solutions inside laptops or phones, for example, as that's not what it's indented for.

How is this better than traditional storage mediums?

SSD

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

So why is glass better than what we already have for archiving data? Tape works just fine, as do optical drives. The problem with those forms of data storage is that they deteriorate over time. Tape doesn't last forever, and optical drives last even less time than that. Project Silica solves this problem as, well ... it's glass. It doesn't degrade over time, meaning you can store data on it for as long as it doesn't get smashed or melt.

It's also unaffected by things like water or magnets. It's very easy to destroy tape or optical drives accidentally, but glass, when stored in an archival data center, should be pretty safe from any outside elements. So that's what Project Silica aims to solve: become the best archival cloud storage solution for big companies looking to store large amounts of data.

Project Silica is still a long way from being a commercial product. Yet, Microsoft has signed a partnership with Warner Bros that will see the entertainment giant store its data, such as movies, on Project Silica when it's ready. At Ignite 2019, Microsoft showcased the Superman movie stored on a tiny piece of glass, equating to 76GB of data

This project is easily one of the coolest things I was shown during my time at Ignite 2019 and is just one example of how Microsoft is innovating in spaces I didn't think twice about. What are your thoughts on Project Silica? Let us know in the comments.

Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows 10 on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter: @zacbowden.

3 Comments
  • Well... lets hope someone doesn't sit on it by mistake it 🤣. Also what about humidity and condensation as it's not like the climate will stay the same in a century or so. I'm also curious about the effect of vibrational frequencies will have on the quartz as glass can shatter at certain frequencies and not to mention any large earth quake will render that data obsolete. If they can make the quartz resistent to a wide span of frequencies and earth quakes - that would open up heck of alot of use cases and growth points from a fiscal point of view. The latter obviously is dependent on the cost effectiveness and lead time into a supply chain.
  • Humidity doesn't have any effect on glass and condensation wouldn't form on a single pane like this where both sides of the glass are the same temperature. Even if condensation did form, it would not effect the glass in any way and would only have an impact during data retrieval, not storage. Also, climate change is unlikely to have any significant impact on the interior of a climate controlled building. As for vibrations, I would be very surprised if a piece of glass a couple of inches across would be damaged by vibration at the subsonic frequencies generated by an earthquake. I've never heard of anyone's phone screen being cracked by earthquake short of being shaken onto the floor.
  • Glass is a colloid. Wouldn't deformation affect the data after some time? How many years it would remain stable? There is a lot of questions about this technique but it is exciting, nevertheless.