In Depth

Microsoft ‘Project Silica’: is glass the future of mass storage?

Tech giant teams up with Warner Bros to store Superman movie on ultra-tough silica glass panel

Microsoft has come up with an unconventional method for storing movies that could help preserve old film indefinitely. 

Developed under the company’s Project Silica banner, the new medium is made of a “hard silica glass” that can endure extreme conditions without damaging the digital information stored on it, TechRadar reports.

Microsoft teamed up with entertainment giant Warner Bros to engrave a copy of the 1978 movie Superman on to a coaster-sized glass panel and retrieve it using “polarised light” and artificial intelligence (AI), Microsoft’s Jennifer Langston said in a blogpost.

Warner Bros approached Microsoft to help shift its archive from computer hard drives and film negatives stored in “temperature and climate controlled rooms” to a more permanent alternative, the Daily Mail notes. 

Technology could replace the entertainment industry’s age-old problem of storing original movie footage on film, which is “relatively sensitive and vulnerable to long-term degradation”, the news site adds.

How does it work?

According to Trusted Reviews, the process works by using a laser to “burn small vowels” into the surface of a piece of glass measuring 7.5cm by 7.5cm with a thickness of 2mm. Each vowel contains “multiple bits” of information, with data being engraved on multiple layers.  

As described by Langston, the laser creates “layers of three-dimensional nanoscale gratings and deformations at various depths and angles”.

Microsoft then uses “machine learning algorithms”, which are AI systems that are trained to carry out a process autonomously, to decode the small engravings using light that is passed over the panel, she says. 

Each glass panel stores 75GB worth of data, says Trusted Reviews. While that’s not nearly as large as most consumer storage systems, the panels can store information for “centuries” without degradation. 

“The hard silica glass can withstand being boiled in hot water, baked in an oven, microwaved, flooded, scoured, demagnetised and other environmental threats that can destroy priceless historic archives or cultural treasures if things go wrong,” said Langston. 

Will it be the future of storage?

While the technology has the potential to safeguard old movies, pictures and records, it’s unlikely that laser-engraved glass will find its way into consumer products any time soon.

“We are not trying to build things that you put in your house or play movies from,” said Ant Rowstron, deputy lab director at Microsoft’s research centre in Cambridge. “We are building storage that operates at the cloud scale.”

It means that the panels could be used in vast, highly secure data centres, replacing the mass storage solutions currently used by cloud providers such as Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon Web Services. Therefore, tech fans wouldn’t need to worry about using hard drives at home to store their data securely.

“We really want something you can put on the shelf for 50 or 100 or 1,000 years and forget about until you need it,” Rowstron concluded.

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