How many times have you seen something like this on TV?  The U.S.S. Enterprise has discovered a new world that once was inhabited.  Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and Bones beam down to examine an ancient culture center.  In their searching, they discover a cache of large crystals and a device that looks like it will accept them.  Spock takes a crystal, puts it in the device, ancient machinery whirrs into action and a hologram appears showing the history of this ancient civilization.  This not only makes for good TV, it also exposes a real problem creeping into todays increasingly cloud based world.  How do you store information long term, particularly where the cloud is center stage?


Almost.  In this case, quartz glass.  If you haven’t heard of it yet, please allow me to introduce you to Microsoft’s Project Silica.  It employs recent discoveries in ultrafast laser optics to store data in quartz glass by using femtosecond lasers, and building a completely new storage system designed from scratch around this technology. The process opens up an incredibly exciting opportunity to challenge and completely re-think traditional storage system design, and to co-design the future hardware and software infrastructure for the cloud.

As a proof of concept test for Project Silica, Microsoft collaborated with Warner Bros. to store the 1978 movie Superman on a piece of this glass, which measures 75-by-75mm and is just 2mm thick. It's about the same size as a drink coaster.  The movie is stored by encoding the data with an infrared laser and creating "layers of three-dimensional nanoscale gratings and deformations at various depths and angles." Reading the data from the glass requires machine learning algorithms that can decode "images and patterns that are created as polarized light shines through the glass."  Unlike storage mediums designed to work with desktop computers and mobile devices, Project Silica is designed to work with the resources offered by the cloud.  Here’s a short video on the process, please have a look:

While it sounds complicated, the upside is how robust this write-once storage medium is. Microsoft claims the glass can be boiled in water, baked at 500 degrees in an oven, blasted in a microwave, and demagnetized, but the data it contains will survive. The lifetime is also incredibly long and measured in thousands of years.


Warner Bros. may sound like an unusual first partner, and so does Superman for a first storage experiment, but it makes sense if you look at a bit of history. In the 1940s, the Superman radio serials were recorded.  To their surprise and delight, Warner Bros. archivists recently discovered they had been stored on record-sized pieces of glass, with the bonus being they still play today! As such, it is rather fitting that the Superman movie be stored on a piece of glass to ensure it remains playable into the future, just like the old radio serials.

Clearly Microsoft is hoping Project Silica becomes the archival medium of the future, we could one day see all movie and TV studios transferring their content to glass. However, archiving is only one piece of the storage puzzle and we still need other solutions to help cope with the staggering amount of data we create every day. Here too, Microsoft is working on a solution, only instead of glass it relies on DNA.