100TB cartridges compete with tapes, hard drives and DNA for dominance in data archiving

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Whereas online storage remains the most visible part of consumer storage in the tech ecosystem, the part that requires the most capacity remains hidden. Archiving and long-term storage of data by hyperscalers and service providers has grown over the past decade as more of our lives – especially during the COVID lockdown – s took place online.

Optical storage (think DVD and Blu-ray) has been in the shadows as tapes, exotic media (like silica or DNA), and hard drives vie for supremacy in the hotly contested field of storage. archiving. However, a newcomer, Folio Photonicsaims to deliver the goods faster than everyone else by putting a new spin on existing optical technology.

The startup, spun off from the Center for Layered Polymeric Systems, a National Science Foundation-funded science and technology center, is a relative newcomer to a crowded market and we sat down (virtually) with its CEO, Steve Santamaria to discuss the future of this exciting technology.


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(Image credit: Phil Hearing — Unsplash)

I can trace the first glimpse of a 1TB optical drive back to 2007. Why did it take so long to get a commercially viable product?

It turns out that commercially manufacturing 1TB drives using the traditional spin-coating method is difficult to achieve while maintaining yields and margins. Folio’s breakthrough is as much about the co-extruded film manufacturing process as it is about advanced materials science. The manufacturing process allows for commercial scale and affordable costs. This allows Folio to deliver high optical capacity at a fraction of typical optical storage costs.

Your press release mentions $5 per TB while your site mentions $3 per TB, which one is right?

Both are right. This will be a business/market decision. Folio intends to have the lowest $/TB of all current storage media when we ship the first product, but we recognize that data archive storage is a commodity and will manage our pricing and roadmap accordingly to deliver the best value to our customers and investors.

How is your optical disc different from a traditional Blu-ray disc? What is the secret sauce?

Multi-layered and low-cost manufacturing process. Traditional Bluray discs are three or four layers and have been for 20 years (Archival disc achieves 6 layers by having 3 layers on both sides). Our first product will be 8 layers per side, which means we will have a 16-layer double-sided disc. That’s ~2.7 times the capacity of current Bluray with no advancements in areal density (more data per layer). The secret sauce is materials science + extruded film manufacturing.

Many before you have tried the WORM route but had no impact (eg Pinnacle Micro etc). What differentiates your approach and how did you manage to beat giants like Panasonic or Sony?

We believe that customer needs evolve. Much archived data is “object” and by definition object data must be immutable. WORM is the best way to achieve data immutability.

Your technology allows the use of cartridges or discs. What would be the use cases for either (perhaps prosumer vs petabyte archives)?

There are a number of library companies that offer robotics as well as a robust SW layer that we work with. Cartridge vs disc carousel, vs disc tray will be chosen to meet different market use cases and determined by library vendors.

What kind of performance are we talking about? Access time, transfer rate, write rate, etc. ?

At this time, we do not disclose performance metrics, but we are comfortable pointing to SONY ODA metrics as comparable. Access time, in particular, will be determined by library vendors and the ratio of drives to discs they sell.

What is the goal of Horizon 3? 10TB disk and 100TB cartridges by 2030? Would the cost per TB stay the same or decrease?

10TB drives are the target, but will be determined by the market. Folio’s manufacturing process allows us to better control costs and we are committed to delivering the best value to our customers and investors.

How much will the writers/readers cost and what kind of improvement would you see there? Multiple read/write heads? Double sides?

It is still too early to discuss the price of our drives, except that we will be competitively positioned somewhere between today’s Blu Ray drives and LTO tape drives.

Why use Folio Photonics? What is the photonic aspect of it?

The Folio Photonics name comes from our founder, Dr. Ken Singer. “Folio” refers to the layering of sheets of paper (in a book format in many cases); so it is used to describe the layered film we make. Then, “photonics” is the physical science and application of the generation, detection and manipulation of light (photon). By combining our innovations in materials science, manufacturing and optics, we are able to use our layered film in conjunction with photonics for this high-tech application.

Your site mentions more than 16 layers. Does this mean maybe more layers will come?

Yes, we are planning more than 32 layers by 2030 in our technology roadmap. That being said, our co-extrusion manufacturing process has demonstrated the ability to achieve much more than 32 layers. While we aim to create 32 layer films, the disc will be double sided. This will allow for 32 layers on each side. 167GB x 64 layers is over 10.7TB. That’s how we project up to 10TB.

What surface area density will first-generation drives use? What kind of areal density improvement do you hope to achieve later?

We expect our first generation drives to be in the standard areal density/optical layer range today. Which is around 25 to 33 GB/layer depending on the medium examined. Optical technologies have shown the ability to achieve more than 88-167 GB/layer by reducing dot size, bringing marks closer together and advancing read/write optics. We believe this will be achievable in the future as we progress through our technology roadmap.


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