Optical storage is in the midst of a major technological revolution, as next-generation formats begin to emerge.
The new optical formats are perhaps most promising for meeting WORM (write once, read many) archival storage requirements, a growing need as more regulations mandate that data be protected and unaltered.
The next generation of DVD, Blu-ray and HD-DVD, and the next generation of professional optical disks such as UDO could make inroads into the storage market as alternatives to disk-based archival and tape technologies, some observers say.
Much has been made of the format battle over the next generation of consumer DVD technology. Blu-ray and HD-DVD are the two formats jockeying for superiority. Despite their differences, both formats utilize blue laser technology, and both will provide storage capacities that could give enterprise storage managers reason to consider them as options for archival needs.
Still, some say the new DVD formats aren't likely to make much of a dent in the enterprise archival market.
"While both blue disc formats offer significant advances in storage capacity and transfer rate over traditional optical media, it is not likely that either format will be competitive with price-capacity advantages of magnetic tape as an enterprise archive solution," said Subodh Kulkarni, executive director of research and development at Imation.
Imation does, however, have an investment in next-generation DVD. Kulkarni noted that Imation will have a pilot facility in North America that will be capable of doing both formats when the drives are launched early next year. While not suitable in Kularni's view for enterprise data center archive solutions, he did say that Imation is pursuing development and potential scale-up of both formats for some departmental, SMB and consumer applications.
"Both formats offer the robust construction needed to protect data for many years, and could be a viable long-term storage media," Kulkarni said. "Capacity migration will be an important determining factor."
HP is a big believer in optical storage, although not in the new DVD formats. Tom Sas, product marketing manager of HP's StorageWorks Division, said many DVD applications are bare media and thus are open to damage and hard to label.
"Some customers who are cost sensitive have implemented DVD solutions at an enterprise level because the cost of the media is extremely low," Sas told Enterprise Storage Forum. "This is due in part to its use in consumer electronics and the sheer volumes that it can share with those products.
"However, many customers are finding that although the solution is initially inexpensive, long-term viability can be an issue," Sas added. "Enterprise customers are now at the mercy of consumer roadmaps, which we know can change more quickly than some customers may wish to refresh their solution."
Next-generation DVD also presents an additional problem until there is a clear winner in the format war.
"No IT manager should even consider these technologies until the dust has settled," Info-tech Research analyst Curtis Gittens said. "Even as the smoke has cleared and one standard remains, IT managers that are comfortable with their disk and tape archiving systems will have no immediate compelling reason to switch to optical."
Gittens notes that more SMBs and large enterprises are moving toward a wholly disk-based or D2D2T (disk-to-disk-to-tape) backup infrastructure that excludes any type of optical device and media.
Those reservations aside, one vendor has plans to release enterprise storage products based on the new optical formats. A Sony spokesperson said the company plans to introduce Blu-ray optical storage products next year.
"Blu-Ray will be more than a consumer technology," the spokesperson said. "Sony is planning a Blu-Ray storage drive targeted for IT environments."
Another blue laser format is already making inroads into enterprise storage environments.
Ultra Dense Optical (UDO) is being sold by both HP and IBM, among others, and is specifically targeted at archival storage needs. The technology is heralded by its creator, Plasmon, as the successor to MO (Magneto Optical), a red laser-based format.
Sony offers a competing product to UDO, its ProDATA drives, but the company has no plans to develop the technology beyond the first generation and will instead shift its efforts to Blu-ray product development.
Sas said the specs are similar between consumer blue-laser DVD formats and UDO, but he noted that UDO is geared toward the professional storage environment. As opposed to the "bare media" of DVD, UDO is encased media with a shutter and metal hub, and is made to stand up to rigorous automation environments. UDO's media capacity is currently 30 GB.
"HP's UDO business has been increasing since its release a year and a half ago," Sas said. "It is meeting the needs of customers that are looking for a standards-driven way to help meet their compliance needs.
"The WORM capabilities of UDO allow customers to add a secure way to store their data on media with a shelf life of at least 50 years," Sas added. "It gives them this capability while at the same time keeping the data in near-line, readily accessible storage."
The president of Plasmon, Christopher Harris, noted that since Plasmon owns UDO, it can give long guarantees on the life of the product and ensure that if customers buy a drive that it won't become obsolete.
Reliability and ruggedness are two key characteristics that Harris believes set UDO apart from its DVD peers and from tape as well. UDO isn't necessarily a direct competitor to tape, though.
"We don't see much competition from tape," Harris told Enterprise Storage Forum. "There are some areas where we are a tape replacement."
Harris said UDO has quick access to data, while tape's time to data is long and the media can face reliability issues.
"For backup, tape is good, but UDO fits a different need in terms of access to data and reliability," Harris said. "We position UDO as a long-term archival data solution."
In comparison to disk-based storage, UDO has its benefits and drawbacks there too.
"The historical barrier is that optical is kind of slow in comparison to disk, which of course it is," Harris said, but the technology offers long-term archival capabilities that spinning disk doesn't.
Harris argues that spinning disk requires users to change the disks every three to five years, and possibly the RAID controllers too, and regenerate the hardware. With UDO, users take the media out, put it on the shelf and stick it back in the library when they need it.
UDO may also be cheaper than disk to manage and maintain.
An August 2005 report from Enterprise Strategy Group commissioned by Plasmon, "Active Archival Storage: Cost of Ownership Analysis," concluded that UDO is cost-competitive against tape, DVD, EMC Centera disk and MO-based solutions.
"As a matter of fact, our analysis indicates that 12 TB of parity-protected Centera capacity is 361 percent more expensive than a comparably configured automated UDO optical library," the Enterprise Strategy Group report states.
The Future of Optical Storage
Sas said the professional optical storage business is seeing competition from other technologies, specifically hard disk applications with WORM, such as HP's Reference Information Storage System (RISS) and EMC's Centera, and now WORM tape, such as LTO-3 with WORM. Certain areas such as SEC-regulated companies have been long-time optical users, and healthcare and Homeland Security are promising growth markets for the technology.
"However, capacities and performance increases will need to accelerate to keep pace with competing products in these arenas," Sas said. "On the personal storage front, optical disks will continue to play a vital role in distribution and enjoyment of published entertainment content as well as preservation and sharing of personal content."
UDO, for one, will try to keep pace. The UDO 2 format, set for release at the end of 2006, will double capacity to 60GB at the same price point. New UDO 2 drives will read previous generations of UDO media, according to Harris.
Harris contends that Plasmon is in a very good position to grow the enterprise optical storage market.
"We're just now through the integration phases, so systems are now beginning to be deployed in the market," Harris said. "We see some rapid growth in terms of top-line revenues and things beginning to happen in the next few years."
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