By Rajvi Khanjan Shroff
What is Project Silica?
For years, companies have been hoping to find a way to preserve data such as photos and medical records for longer which will be resilient against environmental conditions to cater to the ever-increasing need for long-term storage. Because degradation is a major issue, there has been much research in finding solutions. For instance, hard disks work for roughly 3-5 years, and file formats (think pdfs and jpegs) responsible for holding information in computer files become unusable and not supported once newer updates come out. Microsoft and Warner Bros. aimed to tackle this challenge together through Project Silica, which started in 2016.
Their goal was to find a way of storing cold data (information that does not need to be accessed frequently but that is important to store, such as legal contracts and a building plan of a city). And in November of 2019, they announced the success of a concept test of Project Silica: they had found a way to store and retrieve the 1978 movie ‘Superman’ on a quartz glass about 75 x 75 x 2 mm! It was the first step in creating a “storage tank” that operates on a large scale. It ensures longevity (more than 1,000 years), is low-cost, and is extremely resilient and durable (they tested it out, and the glass was able to withstand various situations like being boiled in hot water, baked in an oven, microwaved, flooded, scoured and demagnetized!) Not only will it change how we preserve data, Project Silica is also environmentally sound and, once carried out, will decrease the negative impacts on the planet.
How does it work?
A peek at the process--An infrared laser passes through the glass, storing data in voxels
Microsoft used recent findings in ultrafast laser optics and artificial intelligence to store the data in the quartz glass.
First, an infrared laser (similar to ones used in Lasik eye surgeries) is passed through the glass, causing “layers of three-dimensional nanoscale gratings and deformations at various depths and angles.” (Microsoft) This creates voxels on the glass, a structure that is the three-dimensional version of a pixel. The voxels contain a few bits worth of information, which is unique because most optical data-storage has the data written on the surface of something, but Project Silica has the data laser-focused and stored inside the glass. Once an array of voxels is created, the glass is then archived and accessed only for reading the data.
To reveal the data, a computer-controlled microscope is used, and machine learning algorithms decode the images and patterns that are created when polarized light is shined through the glass, hence revealing the data stored inside it.
If you would like to see a Youtube animation of this process, here is the link to Microsoft’s video on the Project.
Who is the target audience?
Project Silica is a phenomenal development in storage for cold data. This is especially good news for media companies like Warner Bros, which has been searching for a way of storing its immense wealth of information, such as animated shorts and theatrical films, in digital forms for years.
Currently, Warner Bros. needs to undertake the expensive task of moving and rewriting the data every few years; this is an especially massive undertaking with a lot of content, and Project Silica might be the fix. The innovation will greatly reduce costs and be a far more convenient way of managing cold data and ensure it can pass on to future generations, as the movie ‘Superman’ can now last for centuries.
And after Project Silica moves into the refinement phase, this technology might be adopted by many kinds of studios, companies, and organizations, like those in the film industry, businesses seeking to preserve culturally significant films or documents, and even the military.
Project Silica was not intended to store data “that you [can] put in your house or play movies from” and was instead meant to “[build] storage that operates at the cloud-scale.” As Ant Rowstron, partner deputy lab director of Microsoft Research Cambridge put it, “the ground-breaking research may very well influence other research projects which might eventually lead to new methods of storing personal data.” Perhaps a few years from now, quartz glass may become the industry standard for storing data, and it won’t be strange to use it to pass on information to future family members!
What are the impacts and importance of this technology?
Not only is Project Silica a breakthrough in storing technology, it is environmentally-friendly as well. Because quartz glass doesn’t need the energy-intensive air conditioning to stay at a constant temperature and withstand the moisture in the air, the environmental footprint of large-scale data storage significantly lowers.
Another advantage is that there is less energy consumption by using quartz glass and maintaining it than with modern-day data centers. Additionally, the amount of plastic and other processed materials that are extremely damaging for the environment will be used far less because the data under Project Silica will be long-lasting, and there won’t be a need to keep copying it every so often on these materials. Because it is safe from extreme weathers, there will also be no need to make multiple copies of the same file, making it a healthier and a more sustainable method for the planet.
The impact of Project Silica is far-reaching. It is projected to be affordable and quite a step-up from previous methods of conserving data. The implementation of project Silica changes how we will share, handle, and store information and data both with each other and posterity.
Project Silica is still in the early days and has a long way to go in order to be used on a commercial level. However, there is no doubt that once it is ready to use, it will be an amazing, useful, and economical development.
Ankit, G. (2019, November 7). Microsoft Project Silica - all you need to know. Gadgetscanner. https://gadgetscanner.in/microsoft-project-silica-warner-bros/
Langston, J. (2019, November 4). Project Silica proof of concept stores Warner Bros. ‘Superman’ movie on quartz glass. Innovation Stories. https://news.microsoft.com/innovation-stories/ignite-project-silica-superman/
Marc DeAngelis, M. (2019, November 4). Microsoft archived ‘Superman’ on its Project Silica glass storage medium. Engadget. https://www.engadget.com/2019-11-04-microsoft-archived-superman-project-silica.html