Holographic storage bites the dust

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.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

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.

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