Last week at Microsoft Ignite 2019, Microsoft Research announced the release of Project Silica. This is an amazing new technology to store data on a piece of glass. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to sit down with Antony Rowstron, Deputy Lab Director at Microsoft Research, and ask him all my questions.

An interview with Project Silica Researcher, Ant Rowstron

What is Project Silica?

Project Silica is a research endevour to store digital data on a piece of quartz glass. The technology currently exists and can be used to store files the size of the original Superman movie or the Windows 10 operating system.

The technology is still very new, so it will be years before it is productionalized.

How is Data Stored?

A femtosecond laser is fired inside the glass. It uses multiple pulses to form a voxel. A voxel can be thought of as a tiny iceberg within the glass. The voxel is shaped like a teardrop and has a size of approximately 1 micron (1 micrometer). Each voxel can store multiple bits and data depends upon the size and orientation of the voxel.

Many layers of voxels are stored on a piece of glass. The sample I got to see had 20 layers. The sample from the keynote had 74 layers. Current capabilities allow for hundreds of layers.

Why Quartz Glass?

It needs to be transparent because in order to read the data a microscope-like device needs to be able to focus at different layers. Thus, it needs to be able to see through the upper layers.

Quartz glass is purer than window pane glass. Plus, it is a readily available substance that the world already produces.

Most importantly,

“The properties of the voxel formations is a function of glass.”

–Ant Rowstron, Microsoft Research

How is Data Read?

A separate device is used to read the data. It is a computer-controlled microsocope. To begin with, it focuses on the layer of interest and a set of polarization images are taken. These images are then processed to determine the orientation and size of the voxels. The process is then repeated for other layers.

The images are fused using machine learning and a Convolution Neural Network. In addition,

“There are about 8 tracks which have well-known data written in them. … If in 100 years time, it doesn’t read, we can we retrain the ML from the tracks we have. It is a self-describing media. “

–Ant Rowstron on how data is read from Project Silica

What are the Use Cases?

Project Silica is being created as a long-term archival storage device. Previous technologies such as tape and hard disks were designed before the cloud existed. They have limitations around temperature, humidity, air-quality, and life-span. Project Silica avoids those limitations.

“This is a technology designed just for the [cloud] datacenter.”

–Ant Rowstron, Microsoft Research

How Durable is it?

The Quartz glass will not deteriorate, which is one of its better qualities for this application. The glass can retain its stored data after being submerged in boiling water, put in a flame, scratched with steel wool, shaken or microwaved.

The voxels will still be there after 1000s of years.

It can however be smashed with a hammer or shattered like any other piece of glass.

What Do You Invision as the Future of Project Silica?

A wall covered in plates of glass with an arm coming out to fetch a piece of glass. Then the glass will be taken over to a reader. It will be read and then returned to the wall.

What is Next?

There are three things which are really important to any storage technology.

  1. Density – how much data can be fit in a certain amount of space
  2. Write throughput – how fast can the data be written
  3. Read thoughput – how quickly can the data be read

Microsoft is going to be pushing really hard on all three. Currently a piece of glass the size of an optical disc can store more data than an optical disc. And, the read/write process has gotten 1000 times faster than the beginning of the project. Theoretically, the piece of glass I am holding in the image below should be able to hold hundreds of terabytes.

Holding Project Silica with Ant Rowstron

More Information

If you are looking for more information, you can reference one of the research papers, Glass: A New Media for a New Era or you can listen to the Microsoft Research Podcast Episode, Optics for the Cloud .

Microsoft has also published a short video demonstrating some of the capabilities.