HVault announces holographic storage system with petabytes of capacity

HVault also has its eye on the consumer market

Start-up company hVault this week announced it plans to begin shipping a holographic disc drive, rack-mountable autoloader and robotic library later this year, offering archival storage that lasts at least 50 years.

The company is using the intellectual property of InPhase Technologies, which is in bankruptcy protection, and said its success with holographic disc in the face of others' failure will come from addressing big data capacity requirements and not from selling one-off discs and drives. The company plans to address the needs of petabyte-sized archives.

Each hVault disc is expected to hold from 300GB to 500GB of capacity. The company's lowest-end disc autoloader will hold 15 discs for a total price tag of about $50,000. The company plans to ship its first products to beta customers later this year.

An hVault disc cartridge, drive and autoloader.

HVault's robotic library system can have from one to eight drives. A base model starts with 240 disc slots and can be expanded to as many as 540 slots. Up to three library cabinets can be daisy-chained together.

"So in one box you can have petabytes of storage where anything in there is accessible in less than 10 seconds," said Bland McCartha, vice president of sales for hVault. "Our target market is active archive."

McCartha said hVault's library systems will enable companies to archive vast collections of analog video that require digitization as well as content that has already been digitized. The three biggest markets firs its product will be media and entertainment, medical imaging and the U.S. government, for storing data such as satellite imagery.

HVault is also considering a consumer version of the holographic storage device that would allow users to store more than a terabyte of data on a single platter, significantly more than Blu-Ray or DVDs, which offer storage for up to 50GB of data.

"We will be able to use that kind of thing," said Tom Coughlin, principle analyst at data storage consulting firm Coughlin Associates. "That amount of content would be onerous to transport on any kind of any online distribution system. It just won't have the speed."

HVault is entering a market with few, if any, competitors. Last year, GE's technology development division said it was pushing ahead with plans to distribute a 500GB holographic optical storage disc technology that it hoped to license to manufacturing partners. The GE discs offer the same recording speed as Blu-ray and 20 times the amount of storage space. GE first touted the technology in 2009.

GE did not return a request for comment on where that technology effort stands today.

In 2007, InPhase Technologies took aim at the magnetic tape drive market with the industry's first 300GB holographic optical disc. InPhase, which was spun off from Bell Laboratories, called its holographic product the Tapestry HDS-300R and planned to sell the platters for $100 to $125 each. InPhase had also planned a second-generation 800GB rewritable optical disc with data transfer rates of about 80MB/sec., with plans to expand disc capacity to 1.6TB by 2010.

In five rounds of venture capitalist funding, InPhase raised $94 million. Then the company vanished. Many speculate that InPhase was too busy "tinkering with its technology" and didn't focus enough on execution. Last year, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Venture capital firm Signal Lake acquired a majority stake in InPhase and appointed its vice president of sales, Art Rancis, as the new CEO.

McCartha said hVault is in negotiations with InPhase to acquire the patents for its holographic technology. He said 10 years of technology development by others will not go to waste and hVault will focus on getting out its product.

Unlike DVD or BluRay disc, holographic disc storage does not use a laser to burn a single bit of data into a flat platter.

A holographic disc is made up of three layers -- two polycarbonate protection layers that sandwich a photosensitive layer.

In a holographic disc drive, light from a single laser beam is split into two beams, the signal beam, which carries the data, and the reference beam. The hologram is formed where these two beams intersect on the photosensitive layer. When a laser hits the photosensitive element it stabilizes, much in the same way the silver in a black and white photo stabilizes when exposed to light in order to create an image.

According to InPhase's website, the process for encoding data onto the signal beam is accomplished with a device called a spatial light modulator (SLM). The SLM translates the electronic data of 0s and 1s into an optical "checkerboard" pattern of light and dark pixels. The data are arranged in an array or page of about 1.5Mbits. The exact number of bits is determined by the pixel count of the SLM.

How a holographic drive records data (Image: InPhase Technologies)

Just as InPhase's technology, hVault's product reads and writes data at 20MBps compared with Blu-Ray's data transfer speed of 4.8MBps.

Holographic disc technology faces an uphill battle against well-established products, such as LTO magnetic tape and high-capacity hard disk drives. McCartha, however, said the longevity of holographic discs will win over customers.

"We can't store as much as an LTO tape right now, but we will cross over that capacity point pretty rapidly and then accelerate away from those technologies," McCartha said. Both disc capacity and read/write speeds are expected to double about every year, compared with tape and disk drive capacities, which double about ever 18 months, he said.

HVault also plans to build a solid-state drive caching device on the front end of its robotic holographic disc libraries in order to speed up throughput for writes.

"We all need to keep an open mind and realistic expectations," said Joseph Martins, managing director at research firm Data Mobility Group.

"Frankly, it's a great concept that may eventually deliver on its promises and then some. Even if hVault fails to succeed, the investment will not be lost to the extent that it advances our understanding of alternatives to current storage technology. Let's thank the VCs for having the audacity to continue to pursue it," he added.

hVault's holographic disc robotic library

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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