Microsoft’s Project Silica has delivered proof of concept for its quartz glass storage theories, after teaming up with Warner Bros. to inscribe the classic 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman film onto a palm-size glass disk.
The long arc of data storage has involved tubes filled with mercury, magnetic tape, laser-etched spinning disks—and that’s just computer storage. Compact discs and DVDs were handed down from the tradition of audio recording, where a spinning medium is grooved in order to be read by a needle or, later, a laser. Sound pioneer Alexander Graham Bell made experimental recordings in his Volta lab, using glass, beeswax, rubber, and brass to find out which materials could hold sound.
Both at the time and since, scientists introducing new data storage have faced some major logistical problems, like how a medium that’s more durable over time may not hold enough content to be worth it, or how the best fidelity may be on the most delicate or impractical medium.
There have been huge tradeoffs in every generation of storage. With data storage for computing, for example, development quickly split into two separate paths based on usage: random access, meaning a storage place where you can choose a specific location to jump to, and serial access, where a tape or other medium must be accessed in entire cycles by a head that moves one location at a time in order. Developing random access technology was more costly and involved more pure invention, so early computers had small RAM segments, mostly for temporary usage. Long-term storage was left to mediums like magnetic tape and punch cards.
Today, there are massive incentives to finding new mediums for long-term storage. Project Silica is focusing on quartz glass, made from the crystalline form of one of the most plentiful minerals in the Earth’s crust. Quartz glass isn’t just efficient for data storage—it’s potentially durable for many decades because of its resistance to heat and weather in general. Quartz is also as hard as porcelain on the Mohs scale.
Once files are etched onto quartz glass using, for example, Microsoft’s 3D laser arrangements, they’re there for the foreseeable future. Microsoft says this is ideal for cloud storage situations. What the company means is if one permanent copy of Superman can exist in a warehouse for 100 years for everyone who wants to stream it on Netflix, this reduces storage cost, maintenance cost, and even unforeseen costs of having to move a file from one area of a server farm to another.
Magnetic tape wears out, as anyone taping songs off the radio in the ‘80s understands. But the use case for these more fragile materials isn’t what Project Silica and other long-term storage research is targeting.
In Ben Winters’s 2019 novel Golden State, he envisions an alternate world where everyone’s daily activities and detritus are stored on paper files in boxes they must keep in their homes—sealed records that are archived, not accessed. This is what Project Silica is trying to address: medical records, business transaction logs, and media storage that will never need to change or be rewritten. Like your computer’s read-only files today, you’d need to pull a copy of Superman down from the cloud in order to slice and dice.
Long-term storage mediums like quartz glass may have applications for public safety as well. Scientists wrestle with how to store dangerous materials like nuclear waste that will stay dangerous for thousands of years, but they also aren’t sure how to communicate into the far future that a specific site is even a public safety threat at all.