Blue Light Special

Recently, I came across “Optical Storage Sings the Blues,” from ComputerWorld as well as several other articles which discuss a new family of laser disk technology that can store up to 20GB of data on a single DVD-like disk, or up to 30GB on optical disks housed in protective cartridges. This is 400-600% more capacity than today’s DVD’s! For the most part, this is achieved by switching the infrared laser found in CD & DVD drives with a blue laser — blue light has a shorter wavelength, producing thinner laser beams which can write more data to what is basically the same media.

This should be welcome news to IT departments responsible for archiving strategic company information, such as financial, customer, or product design databases. Today, these archival processes use tapes, which are stored in climate-controlled vaults. But even under controlled conditions, magnetic media has a very limited life-span and the information on archive tapes must be moved to new tapes every couple of years. Depending on a company’s archive requirements — fourteen or more years in some cases — this “refresh” process can become very expensive and time consuming.

To combat this problem, IT shops have begun to use CD’s and DVD’s for some archives. But these disks have only a tiny fraction of the storage capacity of modern data tapes. And in some industries, such as mechanical and electronic engineering, design databases can be 10-20 gigabytes or larger, making CD and DVD media impractical. Although blue storage disks are still much smaller than today’s 80-320GB tapes, they are just large enough to be practical for many long-term archival requirements.

This technology is expensive today — around $3000 a drive and $40 per disk — but it has already started appearing in IT shops. Sony, one of a few manufactures, says they shipped about 60,000 drives world-wide last year. This is only a drop in the bucket compared with the 200 million CD and DVD drives shipped during the same time-frame. As the technology becomes more widely used in the industry, it’s price will start to come down.

I expect that in three to five years, these drives should be within the consumer price point of today’s CD and DVD drives — opening new possibilities in the movie and home computing market. Imagine having the entire multi-year run of all five Star Trek series and movies, along with full commentary from cast members, directors, and special-effects artists on a single disk! Being able to backup the 250GB hard drive in my PC on fewer than 4 dozen disks might be nice too.

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