Microsoft has developed a new glass-based storage system to replace conventional solutions slotted into hard and solid-state drives. Microsoft officials say under the new system, data is stored in quartz glass, often called fused silica. The glass is a low-cost solution that offers natural resistance to water, electromagnetic pulses, extreme temperatures and surface scratching.

Microsoft senior optical scientist James Clegg loads a piece of glass into a system that uses optics and artificial intelligence to retrieve and read data stored on glass. Photo by Jonathan Banks for Microsoft.

Officials explain that hard silica glass can withstand being “boiled in hot water, baked in an oven, microwaved, flooded, scoured, demagnetized and other environmental threats that can destroy priceless historic archives.”

A new Microsoft research paper, “Project Silica: Towards Sustainable Cloud Archival Storage in Glass,” reports that glass media provides a natural fit for append-only data structures as blockchains.

“Glass is the ideal media for archival storage,” write researchers. “It is low-cost and readily available to manufacture at scale due to its use of sand as the raw material. In contrast, while magnetic tape is a more sustainable media than hard disk drives, manufacturing magnetic tape still requires significant amounts of energy and water, and results in higher cost, greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions, compared to fused silica glass.”

How it Works

According to Microsoft, data is embedded in a square glass platter with ultrafast femtosecond lasers through voxels. These are permanent modifications to the physical structure of the glass. These allow for multiple bits of data to be written in layers across the surface of the glass. These layers are stacked vertically.

Microsoft employs polarization microscopy technology to image the glass to read data, while the read drive scans sectors in a Z-pattern. The images are then sent to be processed and decoded, which leans on machine learning to convert analog signals to digital data.

The system is suitable for various sensitive industries, including finance, scientific research and healthcare, due to the secure nature of archival glass storage. This means organizations in these sectors can withstand ransomware attacks targeting data stored in the cloud.

Microsoft is exploring how best to configure the physical library where the glass is stored in light of Azure cloud storage usage patterns. Officials say the system is not ready for commercial use.

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