The Future of Optical Storage

By | June 15, 2005

The use of optical storage has been part of the computer industry for more than 25 years. It has proven itself as a cost effective mass-market consumable in the form of CDs and DVDs and also as a professional data archival technology, in a 12 inch format first and then later in a 5.25 inch cartridge.

Physical robustness, long media life and Write Once data authenticity are just a few of the qualities that have made optical storage so successful in the past and new technology developments will ensure the use of optical for many years in the future.

The optical storage industry is in the middle of a major technology shift, transitioning from lower density red lasers to higher density blue lasers. New blue laser based products use the same fundamental technology, but take advantage of the shorter wavelength offered by blue lasers to dramatically increase media capacity. First generation blue laser products offer a three fold storage increase with as much as 30GB on a single cartridge and they also have a well-defined roadmap for even greater capacity future generations.

This new technology is changing the face of both the consumer and professional optical storage industries, but the requirements of these two markets are leading to the development of distinctly different products, targeting very different applications.

Consumer Optical Storage

The CD and DVD market is huge and while there are some data storage applications for these technologies the space is dominated by consumer demand for audio, video and computer games. As higher definition content such as HDTV becomes more commonplace, it is clear that CD and DVD media capacities are simply not sufficient. Since blue laser technology will provide the capacity and performance required by these new applications, all of the traditional CD and DVD technology vendors are actively working on blue laser products.

With very isolated and expensive exceptions, blue laser consumer products are not yet commercially available. Engineers are still refining the technology and like CD and DVD, they are battling over media formats and royalties. Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats have emerged as the strongest contenders. Each of the key vendors have placed their bets on one or the other of these incompatible formats and in some cases are hedging their bets by endorsing both.

Don’t expect to see these products in your local computer shop until late 2005 and this will be very dependent on demand. As of yet, no major content providers have committed to any of the formats and without content, there may be very little consumer demand further delaying product availability.

From a technology perspective, these new products will be totally focused on the consumer market. Read / write strategies, error correction and performance are optimised for audio and video applications and the drives and media are manufactured for cost-sensitive, low duty cycle consumer requirements. In addition, performance specifications are often overly optimistic and rarely reflect what can be achieved in practice. While these products may have applications for home data storage, they will not be appropriate for demanding professional environments.

Professional Optical Storage

Organisations and government agencies depend on the media longevity and data authenticity of professional optical technology to create secure, long-term record archives. Unlike consumer applications that are dominated by streaming audio and video, professional data often ranges from very small text documents to large image files with demanding access requirements. Not only does the hardware need to be more robust, professional optical drives must provide good performance characteristics for a wide range of data types and sizes. They also meet a much higher standard for data integrity through the use of real time error correction and data verification.

Thankfully, the landscape of the professional optical storage market is much less confusing than the consumer space. Blue laser based professional products began shipping at the end of 2003 and UDO (Ultra Density Optical) has emerged as the clear market leader. Originally designed by a consortium of leading storage industry vendors, UDO drives are manufactured by Plasmon and media is available from both Plasmon and Verbatim.

First generation UDO has a 30GB media capacity and is available in both Rewritable and true Write Once media formats. High capacity UDO media in combination with automated libraries offer scalable archive capacities. Plasmon’s own G-Series libraries Powered by UDO range from just under 1TB to over 19TB.

One reason for the success of UDO is the philosophy of long-term product continuity. Using a 5.25 inch ISO standard media form factor allows companies to mix their older MO (Magneto Optical) media and new UDO media in the same automated library. In addition, future generations of UDO will be backward compatible in order to ensure transparent access to older data. This level of continuity is essential to providing a cost-effective strategy for long-term maintenance and data migration within any professional archive.

Another key feature of UDO is true Write Once media recording. Many organisations are choosing Write Once media because it does not allow data to be altered once written. This feature is vital for those companies that need to comply with industry regulations requiring them to maintain a high degree of data authenticity. While other technologies may emulate this feature, only optical storage provides unquestioned Write Once data recording.

The economics of professional optical storage has also changed significantly since the release of blue laser products like UDO. As the cost of magnetic disk and tape continues to decline, previous generation optical products became uncompetitive. The significant jump in media capacity and a five-fold decrease in cost has made optical very price competitive again and this will continue to be true as new product generations are released.


Consumers will have to be a bit more patient while blue laser storage comes to market and initially it will be the case of “buyer beware” as companies battle it out for the lucrative technology royalties. This said, blue laser DVD products should be a major catalyst for a whole host of exciting new entertainment applications sometime in 2005 or beyond.

By contrast, blue laser professional archive products are available today. UDO has already demonstrated its success with hundreds of installations worldwide. Companies are choosing UDO over other storage technologies because it offers the attributes essential to a professional data archive: media longevity, data authenticity and very low total cost of ownership.

Blue laser optical storage is the future for both consumer and professional applications. While the two markets are moving at different speeds and targeting different customers, consumers and professionals can be confident that the benefits of optical storage will be with us for a very long time.

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