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Microsoft's Project Silica saves data on glass plates for 10,000 years

Microsoft Research  Projekt "Silica": Glas als DatenspeicherImage: Microsoft

Microsoft Research, the R&D arm of the Redmond software giant, is testing the storage of huge amounts of data on glass plates in a futuristic initiative dubbed “Project Silica.” If successful, it could be used to store information for thousands of years without degradation.

The Microsoft researchers store the data in the glass using three-dimensional pixels called voxels. In contrast to classical storage methods such as magnetic spinning disks, the “saucer-sized glass plates of Project Silica will store data for thousands of years and create sustainable storage for the world,” as Microsoft describes it.

Magnetic storage, while widely used, is problematic, according to Microsoft. Because of their limited lifespan, they need to be recopied frequently, which increases energy consumption and operating costs over time: “A hard disk drive might last five years. A tape, well, if you’re brave, it might last ten years”, explains Ant Rowstron, Distinguished Engineer, Project Silica.

According to Microsoft, storing data on glass is a concept that dates back to the 19th century. Back then, people stored individual photographic negatives on glass plates. Today, however, Microsoft sees the potential for a small glass disc to store several terabytes of data: around 1.75 million songs (roughly 13 years of music) should fit on a small glass disc. The goal of the Silica project is to write data into a glass and store it on a shelf until it is needed. Once written, the data inside the glass cannot be changed.

Microsoft describes the process as follows:

“Data is stored in glass via a four-step process: writing with an ultrafast femtosecond laser, reading through a computer-controlled microscope, decoding, and finally, storing in a library. The library is passive, with no electricity in any of the storage units. The complexity is within the robots that charge as they idle inside the lab, awakening when data is needed. They climb the shelves, fetch the glass, and then zip back to the reader.”

Microsoft Research

Microsoft continues:

“Initially, the laser writing process was inefficient, but after years of refinement, the team can now store several TB in a single glass plate that could last 10,000 years. For a sense of scale, each plate could store around 3,500 movies. Or enough non-stop movies to play for over half a year without repeating.”

Glass storage is still in its early stages, according to Microsoft, and experts believe it will need 3 to 4 more stages of development before it can be used commercially, But the advantages are obvious: it is durable, sustainable and cost-effective. The main costs are incurred in the initial stages when the data is embedded in these heavy-duty glass plates, but ongoing maintenance costs are minimal once stored.

Application example

The Elire Group is working with Microsoft Research’s Project Silica team to harness this technology for its “Global Music Vault” in Svalbard, Norway. Using silica-based glass plates, the company aims to create a permanent archive that not only withstands electromagnetic pulses and extreme temperatures, but is also environmentally friendly. This vault will complement repositories such as the Global Seed Vault and the Arctic World Archive and provide a comprehensive repository for musical heritage – from classical operas to modern hits and indigenous compositions.

This article was translated from German to English and originally appeared on pcwelt.de.

Hans-Christian Dirscherl schreibt seit über 20 Jahren zu fast allen IT-Themen. Sein Fokus liegt auf der Koordination und Produktion von Nachrichten mit hohem Nutzwert sowie auf ausführlichen Tests und Ratgebern für die Bereiche Smart Home, Smart Garden und Automotive.

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