Blu-ray Disc: Another Option for Optical Storage?
August 25, 2009 Alex Woodie
Regulated companies required to archive data for extended periods have traditionally turned to optical storage. The Magneto Optical (MO) format became popular in the 1990s, while this decade has seen the rise of Ultra Density Optical (UDO). Today some companies are moving their archives to Blu-ray Disc (BD), the next-generation optical format that recently became the standard for high-definition DVD movies. And while big companies may hesitate to bring consumer-based technology into their data centers, at least one vendor claims that the consumer focus is a decided advantage.
UDO and BD share the same technological underpinnings, in that they both use the blue-violet laser technology developed by Sony that allows much more information to be stored on an optical disc. In the early 1990s, the British optical storage vendor Plasmon negotiated an exclusive license to develop UDO into an archival format for businesses, while Sony and others developed BD into a consumer-oriented format that competed with HD DVD, another optical format for high-definition movies, backed by a consortium led by Toshiba. BD beat HD DVD in 2008, ending the format wars for next-generation high definition DVDs.
While BD has a strong future, the future of UDO was thrown into turmoil last year when Plasmon basically went bankrupt. One of Plasmon’s business partners, Alliance Storage Technologies Inc. (ASTI) of Colorado Springs, Colorado, bought all of Plasmon’s assets, including all the intellectual property surrounding UDO, and is attempting to rebuild a business around UDO (see “ASTI Sees Promise in Plasmon’s UDO Technology” in last week’s issue of this newsletter).
ASTI is bullish on the future of UDO, but other vendors in the world of optical storage are not so keen on the proprietary format, and see a brighter future in BD optical. One of those vendors is Phantom Data Systems, a systems integrator based in Norwalk, Connecticut, that used to sell Plasmon’s UDO technology, but now sells optical libraries manufactured by PowerFile of Santa Clara, California, and DISC of Germany.
There are numerous advantages to using BD for archival storage instead of UDO, says Phantom Data president, Alani Kuye. The biggest advantage is the fact that it is more or less an open standard, and is backwards compatible with DVD and CD technology. BD drives are available from many vendors, and they will work in almost any optical library.
Also, the fact that BD is backed by giant technology developers like Sony, Toshiba, and Pioneer, and major movie studios ensures a steady stream of R&D will take place in the years to come. The second generation of BD technology, which boosts the storage from 50 GB to 100 GB per disc, is nearing completion, and could become available later this year.
UDO, by comparison, is tightly controlled by ASTI, which will also have to fund the development of UDO by itself. The company says it is committed to delivering the third generation of UDO, which will boost the storage capacity from 60 GB to 120 GB.
While Plasmon previously allowed other vendors to manufacture UDO media, the manufacturing of drives and libraries is tightly controlled today by ASTI; it is unclear if ASTI licenses media manufacturing to other companies. There is also the fact that UDO drives from ASTI are not compatible with other optical libraries–including those that use BD optical drives–which limits users’ capability to adapt different optical technologies. Media form factors are also very different.
The folks at ASTI are aware that BD technology is trickling up from the consumer-focused developers like Sony and Toshiba. But they maintain that companies looking for enterprise-grade optical storage will continue to select UDO, for several reasons.
“People are still a little nervous” about BD technology, Tim Summers, vice president of product development at ASTI and formerly the CTO of Plasmon, said in a recent interview. “Not just UDO media, but UDO libraries are bullet-proof. People have seen the integrated solution being a dependable piece of equipment for many years of service. Other vendors are coming out with mechanized robotic solutions, but the jury is still out.”
Summers also highlighted the encasement around UDO discs that protects the media when it is outside of a drive or library. “The [BD] media is not covered or encased,” Summers said. “Removable media is important to customers to be able to move it offsite.”
Kuye says the lack of a cover around BD discs is no longer a factor as a result of the many layers of protective coating that BD discs are treated with. “Encasement doesn’t really have a bearing on whether the media last. The benefit of the encasement is really for the label or barcode on the media itself,” he says.
“If you archive [BD media] in a true archival environment, the media is labeled and stored according to clearly defined compliance protocols, so whether it’s in a cartridge doesn’t matter,” Kuye continues. “As a matter of fact, with a cartridge, the problem with that is, now you have more moving parts.”
Kuye claims that, in the last four to five months, his company has swapped out 200 UDO libraries. This includes many System i shops in the insurance and financial services industry that used the RVI imaging system from Real Vision Software to send data to Plasmon G-Series libraries, he says.
Kuye says the companies decided to make the switch to BD drives and optical libraries from PowerFile or DISC because of the “question marks” surrounding UDO’s future, and the corporate mandates that many of those companies have to minimize technological risk. Even with its relatively unproven track record compared to UDO, BD was “the lesser of two evils.”
“I’m not saying UDO is not good technology,” Kuye says. “I’m just saying don’t let the numbers confuse you. The market wants want it wants, and unless you’re willing to adapt, you’re going to alienate yourself.