Optical Storage Makes Enterprise Inroads

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Optical storage has long had its proponents who proclaimed it as the next great storage technology, yet its enterprise customer base remains small a quarter century after its introduction (see Optical Storage Technology Aims for Enterprise Acceptance).

Despite its slow market acceptance among enterprise storage users, some who require data retention, longevity and secure WORM (write once, read many) storage have found it to be the answer to some pressing storage needs. In today’s world of fast-changing technology, compliance regulations and ever-changing business needs, data migration is not only costly, it is also time-consuming. And that new environment is providing an inroad for high-capacity optical (HCO) storage technology.

Has the time come for HCO to be considered as an effective alternative for data storage? For those requiring secure, long-term retention that ranges from 10 to 15 years or longer, it just might be. Banking, medicine, law enforcement, aviation and publishing are just some of the industries that might benefit from HCO’s longevity and convenient archival retrieval.

PowerFile, for one, has built an appliance, Active Archive Appliance (A3), for industries with long-term online archiving requirements. According to Jonathan Buckley, vice president of marketing at PowerFile, the company counts among its customers each of the industries mentioned above.

Ed Walker, vice president of engineering for Call/Recall, said storing data on disc-based HCO is easy and cost-effective. “HCO is also beneficial for e-discovery versus trying to find data sitting in tape farms, as this can be a very painful and labor-intensive experience,” he said.

Another major player in the HCO market is InPhase, a spin-off of Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs. The company recently launched the first storage devices to use holography to write data to disc. This first generation of holographic data technology, according to an InPhase spokesperson, promises 300GB of storage per standard disc, which is approximately six times more than Blu-Ray.

And this is only the beginning, as the company expects to be able to produce 1.6TB of data on a single disc within the next three years. For now, the product is aimed primarily at the data and video archiving space (such as broadcast and media companies). But that may soon change.

Sony Bows Out

Sony recently withdrew from the professional HCO market, leaving UDO (Ultra Density Optical) as the only standard, and Philips also withdrew from the market earlier this year, raising questions about the technology’s enterprise viability — but also creating opportunity for newcomers.

“I think it’s somewhat scary that such a big company has withdrawn from the market space,” said Walker. However, Walker said the vacuum could create opportunities for companies such as Call/Recall, Plasmon and others.

Buckley believes the Sony withdrawal is cause for concern. “If anything, the Sony withdrawal probably gave the marketplace more pause for thought about optical storage overall, which is quite unfortunate,” he said. But Buckley said booming archival needs could be enough to overcome any short-term setback.

“UDO is far from being a dominant technology by any metric,” Buckley said. “Although it is considered a standard, Plasmon is the only company making the drives, meaning that they are few and far between, expensive and a risky proposition for companies looking to commit data assets for 20+ years. This has left a very nice market opportunity for companies such as PowerFile, which has a fresh approach to archival storage, leaving the metric for the bellwether standard up for debate in a couple of years.”

But Plasmon is making inroads and making them fast. In August, the company announced 50 percent growth in its UDO Archive Appliance sales. It has also seen increases in the overall market adoption of its UDO2 technology with the certification and shipment of UDO2 by GE Healthcare, AGFA, IBM and Konica Minolta.

“Plasmon is seeing a very strong interest in our UDO Archive Appliance as a result of corporate governance and regulatory compliance standards, e-discovery and increasing demand for secure, searchable, long-term archives,” said Plasmon CEO Rod Powell. “This positive growth for Plasmon’s UDO2 archival storage solutions is evidence that we are responding to market demand and helping businesses meet unique business requirements.”

Although professional HCO offers true physical WORM capability, companies are confused as to exactly what this means. According to an analyst at Gartner, Plasmon’s HCO offers two types of media, rewritable and WORM, and the technology for the two is quite different. With WORM media, the surface of the media is an amorphous structure and is altered to a crystalline state that cannot be reversed. Rewritable media does just the opposite, where a crystalline surface is heated and rapidly cooled, leaving amorphous data points.

Can Commodity Discs Get the Job Done?

Differences in HCO discs aside, the technology’s proponents generally believe that companies requiring long-term data retention or round-the-clock reliability should not consider using commodity CD or DVD drives in optical libraries.

“Generally, customers seeking the greatest reliability and longevity of formats have been betting on Blu-Ray using PowerFile’s data integrity scheme with fantastic success,” said Buckley. “Without question, raw CD/DVD libraries are fundamentally too unreliable for the enterprise.”

But he noted that this was also true of SATAdrives, yet SATA has met with growing acceptance in the enterprise storage market. “The drives were employed inside systems using various forms of RAID and error correction schemes to deliver system uptime demanded at a cost that only a commodity component could deliver,” he said.

Walker said commodity discs might be able to be used with the right configuration. “If configured with multiple drives, I don’t think it will be a long-term issue,” he said. “However, although I do believe that reliability testing is still needed, I think that commodity CD/DVD will be an alternate option for optical libraries.”

Although optical storage is currently lagging behind both disk and tape storage systems, there is hope on the horizon. Technologies such as InPhase Technologies’ Tapestry holographic storage systems have the potential to jump-start optical storage. Customers in some vertical markets are already successfully using HCO as a long-term archival record solution in conjunction with proper data management tools to provide secure, read-only access with reasonable time to recovery. Companies with requirements for WORM storage that need long-term storage without migration should also consider HCO as an alternative to disk or tape archival storage.

High-capacity optical storage is finally making good on optical technology’s 25-year-old promise, but it still has a long way to go if it hopes to unseat disk and tape.

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Leslie Wood
Leslie Wood
Leslie. Wood is an Enterprise Storage Forum contributor.

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