Holographic storage bites the dust

Holographic storage bites the dust

Summary: After 9 years and $100,000,000, holographic storage pioneer InPhase Technologies has shut down without ever shipping a product. Their office building was also seized for non-payment of back taxes.

TOPICS: Hardware, Storage

After 9 years and $100,000,000, holographic storage pioneer InPhase Technologies has shut down without ever shipping a product. Their office building was also seized for non-payment of back taxes.

Then marketing VP Liz Murphy assured me that the product would ship in May, 2008. It didn't.

The company struggled to find new investors. Reportedly many employees took pay cuts - or no pay at all - to help keep the company going.

It is a sad and ignominious end to a brave technology experiment. And a warning to anyone trying to replace disk drives as random access storage.

How does it work? Holograms use 2 coherent laser beams - a reference beam and an illumination beam - to create an interference pattern that is recorded on photo sensitive media. Shine a laser on the recorded interference pattern and the original image is reconstructed in glorious 3D. As the laser moves around - or you do - you see the image from different perspectives.

Holographic storage has some neat properties.

  • A small fragment of a hologram can reconstruct the entire data image. The fragment won’t let you move as far around the image, but for 2D images, like a photograph, it means a scratch isn’t fatal.
  • Data density is theoretically unlimited. By varying the angle between the reference and illumination beams - or the angle of the media - hundreds of holograms can be stored in the same physical area.
  • Another factor: photographic media has the longest proven lifespan - over a century - of any modern media. Since there’s no physical contact you can read the media millions of times with no degradation.

What was the problem? At a 40% annual capacity growth rate hard drives are difficult to catch. When InPhase started showing their initial prototype, 300 GB wasn't much less than hard drives. But 3 years later 300 GB is less than 1/6th the capacity.

Nor was it very speedy: 20 MB/sec. You can do almost as well with a USB thumb drive.

InPhase planned to take the drives to 1.6 TB and 120 MB/sec. If they could ship that today, they'd have a competitive product.

In the meantime, cheap hard drives and cheaper hard drive docks make it easy to use bare drives for backup and data transfer. The market for 300 GB removable drives withered before it had a chance to grow.

The Storage Bits take The disk industry spends over $1B a year improving hard drives. Thousands of PhD scientists and engineers are busy researching drive problems.

That kind of momentum is hard for a startup to overcome. NAND flash did so only because it built a large business in mobile applications where disk drives couldn't compete.

For a startup to succeed with holographic storage they'll need to either

  • a) build a multi-billion dollar business where disks and now flash don't compete, or
  • b) start with a product that is 10x - 5 years - ahead of current disk drive capacity.

As I wrote in my other blog, StorageMojo, 4 years ago:

I love holographic technology and wish InPhase the best, but I don’t believe they have a viable business with their technology – yet. The problem: 3.5″ disk drives will reach 750GB by the end of this year with much faster transfer rates. InPhase’s 20 Mbps is only 2.5 million bytes per second or only 9GB per hour. It will take over 30 hours just to fill one disk! I predict that hard drives will still be more convenient and fairly cost-competitive than this promising new technology.

But keep at it guys. Lightning will strike if your investors are patient enough.

With the InPhase demise we may never see holographic storage commercialized. Especially if disk vendors start building archive-quality disks.

Comments welcome, of course. I was rooting for InPhase's success, to no avail. Update: I added the quote from 4 years ago that I'd forgotten. End update.

Topics: Hardware, Storage

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  • I was hoping for success as well.

    I was hoping for success as well.

    I think another issue was that they weren't setting their sights high enough - the Wikipedia article claims that "As of 2002, planned holographic products did not aim to compete head to head with hard drives, but instead to find a market niche based on virtues such as speed of access."

    I think that may have been a mistake. I don't think a niche market would have been as profitable as a larger, more general purpose market.

    In any case, I suppose we'll have to start hitting some physical limits with current technologies before we start considering holographic technology again.
  • Bummer.

    I don't think we have seen the end of holographic storage
    but we won't see it come back in the next 10-15 years.

    The concept of a storage device that could hold PB worth of
    highly encrypted data is alluring.
  • It is to bad HP or Dell didn't buy the company

    If the original company couldn't make the product work, may be HP or Dell could buy the rights to the tech and perfect it.

    I like the data longevity of holo-drives. That is a key element that is missing in archiving data. Especially personal data. Trying to keep even one persons data growth under 20 Gigs a year is tough if they are movie buffs and take lots of pictures. Moving the data content from drive to drive is tough for individuals. I would image it is even more difficult for companies and institutions.

    I do agree that the drives need to be designed to far exceed current disk drive capabilities if you want to see wide adoption.

    Also some real marketing for a device that can theoretically house your data for a human life time would make things like digital movies, songs, and books more attractive to people who would like to buy once and watch, listen , and read for their lifetime with out buying physical media.

    I would not give up my hardcover books but I would switch over my DVD collection and music collection on a storage device that allowed me to keep my media for my lifetime.
    • Obviously it's not profitable.

      Even willing slaves (those who opt not to take pay) couldn't get the work done.

      I reckon somebody will buy the patents and wait for someone else to perfect the technology...
  • Will any tech beat hard drives?

    Honestly, the speed at which hard drive tech improves makes it almost impossible to compete in the PC world. (Low cost world.)
    • No.

      I'd even extend that to enterprise storage. Disks are cheap to produce, reliable and fast.

      Newer solid state devices don't really solve any of the problems of current hard disks. They still can fail, they aren't that much faster, and they are more expensive.

      In all honesty someday some incarnation of solid state storage will overtake spindles, but I don't see anything that even remotely looks like a 'killer app' in today's market.
      • I disagree SSD will slowly overcome the disk.

        They have a significant performance increase and are already being used in the enterprise. They use slightly less power and I believe run cooler and can take less space.

        In the consumer market the advantages are clearer. They are smaller, resistant to shock, cooler and provide a greater performance increase. For most consumers capacity is not that big a deal.

        Granted the gap isn't that huge but I believe that will change over time.
        • agreed

          every technology has an end-of-life, usually it extends well beyond whats expected of it... combustion engines, toilets, lightbulbs DRASTICALLY longer life than magnetic HDD, and if you'd asked somebody in the 50's they probably would have told you we'd be flying in hover crafts, no longer need to eat (or excrete) and all light permeates from apparently nowhere. While wired telephones are all but gone and turned into mini computer, camera, music/movie, handheld game, IMing devices. Magnetic HDD will find their end, probably in less than a few decades (in my guess) Flash is getting faster and CPUs are getting cheaper and smaller. MIDs are becoming more popular, fewer moving parts and more efficient power consumption are going to become the driving forces.
        • Disagree

          Its true something will have to replace HDD sometime, & it maybe be a form of SSD, but this current iteration is not it. Its great for certain jobs that need its ruggedness or for people who need its seek time, but for the vast majority of computer users it makes no sense. For less than $150 you can get a 2TB HDD, in that price range on the SSD side is around 64GB. And the price isn't rocketing down.

          I'm not sure what your thinking of when you say "consumer market". If you talking about your average family/single who wants a machine to do work/homework on, store pics, video, movies on, record HD TV onto, play games & maybe edit HD video on (there really isn't an SD video camera market anymore) they will look @ the price/size comparisons of the 2 & currently, & probably for the next few years, HDD wins out, hands down.

          Trust me, I really want a new format that is much better in long term reliability but compares in price & storage capabilities as HDD. I was pulling for holograph or something similar. But right now, SSD does not look to be it.
          • Ah, but you are forgetting

            That the 'niche' of SSD is for ARCHIVAL purposes mainly. I see a 128GB flash drive for 300 dollars and say "Well, yeah.... it's 4 times as expensive as a hard drive of the same capacity BUT it never degrades, you can keep stuff on it FOREVER, etc. etc. etc."

            So, for archival purposes, SSD is great.... it's also good for computers in the future where you won't be writing to the drive often or AT ALL, but will keep everything in memory until it needs to be archived.
        • Is the gap closing or opening?

          Problem is - as much as SSDs are improving, so are the magnetics. It's not as if magnetic technology has stood still through all of this.
          • Closing.

            As Tablets and smaller form factors take shape in mobile computing,
            HDD will start to be relegated to smaller and very centralized storage.
            Peoples primary day to day storage is quickly becoming SSDs.
          • Based on what evidence?

            You can say it but that doesn't mean its true. This literally took me 30 seconds to find on Google:

            [i]SSD application can be briefly divided into two categories: ?PC? and ?non-PC?. As for penetration rate in PC market, the ratio of SSDs used inside notebooks and SSDs utilize inside low-cost PCs has kept declining and resulted in the sloppy overall SSD shipments. An SSD costs over 4 times higher than HDD in terms of the cost per gigabyte while software and storage compatibility still remain the concern for PC vendors.[/i]


            According to this article the SSD market is declining -- not 'quickly becoming our primary day to day storage'
  • If they have any viable technology,

    someone will pick up the pieces. If not, it will die, as it probably should.

    A 300GB optical disc sounds fabulous, but I would need about 3 of them. Duplicate archiving would make that 6. The cost of the drive and the 6 disks would probably set me back many times more than the equivalent duplicate capacity in HDD space. Two terabyte drives cost about $150. And they can be reused for other purposes. I can even stick a drive in my safety deposit box.

    What I really need is the price of 25-50GB optical technology to come down, especially the disks. I could buy a drive and a 50 disc spindle, and my archiving needs would be taken care of, but even that is more expensive than two terabyte drives. The cheapest solution is a DVD recorder and two hundred disk spindles, which would set me back under $100, but the burning and indexing would be a pain in the you know where.

    The whole optical disc technology sector is in a bit of a no man's land right now.
  • The longevity of the data storage should still have a niche

    I'm sure someone wants to ensure their data will last for centuries without decay.

    This may just be a case of tech being developed before it's time. Hopefully all the work they did will not be lost.
  • Holographic storage will appear

    when it makes economic sense. Well, that's assuming that we
    remain a market-driven society, but who knows how long that
    will last with more and more people actually thinking that
    government is benevolent and competent.
  • RE: Holographic storage bites the dust

    They have got to get their money back somehow so watch the market place for very cheap holographic storage drives working but sold "as is" very soon. somebody will have a use for them at the right price...
  • Bummer!

    This means we are stuck with that pathetic Blu-Ray, doesn't it? That really stinks.
  • RE: Holographic storage bites the dust

    If HDD can achieve the same effect of Holographic storage, what is the point of them. Just for looks? Don't loose sleep over that one.
  • 10 & 14TB HDD

    Well, Hitachi and other (forgot the name), already announced they have tecnology for 10 and 14TB on a single HDD. So isn't a surprise at all.

    Both HDDs will coming out before 2020.