Sunday, February 1, 2009

InPhase Technologies - the innovators in holographic storage - "Are rumors of their demise grossly exaggerated?"

Last year the news about InPhase Technologies, the holographic storage innovator was all about their significant technical issues, layoffs and the perception that they were about to be another proof point that holographic recording was a future storage technology that always would be.

However last week I met with Art Rancis their VP Marketing who painted a much brighter picture of their future.

InPhase Technologies has a very strong heritage. Spun off from Bell Labs in 2000, its mission was to build on the six years of Bell Labs fundamental holographic research to deliver an archival mass storage solution suitable for enterprise data storage. Not a challenge for the feint hearted. I am told that InPhase has approximately 485 patents for media, media manufacturing and drive technology. Impressive intellectual productivity from their 24+ PhD’s that are on staff and a measure of the technological complexity that InPhase has mastered and the technology hurdles yet to be overcome by the other would be participants trying to bring this technology to market.

With over 20 companies and research organizations using the InPhase media, the first shipment of a functioning holographic drive, albeit a beta, and production shipments expected in Q42009, InPhase is alive and kicking.

How holographic recording Works: Holography storage breaks from conventional storage by going beyond recording only on the surface. This technique writes data through the full depth of the recording medium. Unlike other technologies that record one data bit at a time, holographic storage writes and reads over a million bits of data with a single flash of light. The claim is that this enables transfer rates significantly higher than current optical storgage devices.

Recording data: Light from a single laser beam is split into two beams, the signal beam (which carries the data) and the reference beam. The hologram is formed where these two beams intersect in the recording medium. The process for encoding data onto the signal beam is accomplished by a device called a spatial light modulator (SLM). The SLM translates the electronic data of 0s and 1s into an optical “checkerboard” pattern of light and dark pixels. The data are arranged in an array or page of over one million bits. The exact number of bits is determined by the pixel count of the SLM.
At the point where the reference beam and the data carrying signal beam intersect, the hologram is recorded in the light sensitive storage medium. A chemical reaction occurs causing the hologram to be stored. By varying the reference beam angle or media position hundreds of unique holograms are recorded in the same volume of material.

Reading data: In order to read the data, the reference beam deflects off the hologram thus reconstructing the stored information. This hologram is then projected onto a detector that reads the entire data page of over one million bits at once. This parallel read out of data provides holography with its relatively fast transfer rates.

Current Product Overview:

  • Performance:
    Unit media capacity of 300GB growing to 1600GB by 2013.
    Throughput - 20MB/s growing to 120MB/s by 2013.
    The next generation is already on the test bed working on upgrading performance to 800GB at 80MB/s; expected in the 2011 timeframe.
    Average seek times of 250ms
    Sequential writes/random reads
    Interfaces - SCSI Parallel (160/320) - High Density, 68 pin; FC, 4Gbps Optical; Gig-E; Serial Attached SCSI (SAS)
    Emulation, MO WORM and LTO Tape
  • Technology Longevity:
    As with any technology roadmap the question is backward compatibility. With assurances of full backward compatibility early InPhase adopters of will not be forced to deal with a forklift upgrade path.
  • Media:
    Currently WORM only with rewritable technology scheduled for 2011
    50 year archival life
    Encased Media: Same form factor as existing MO cartridge meaning that existing robotic picker technologies can be exploited.
  • US List Pricing;
    Drive - $18,000 US
    Media - Current media price $180 US ($0.6/GB)
  • Automation:
    240 to 2140 capacity jukebox
    15 cartridge capacity autoloader.

To graduate from the interesting "but" category, a technology must have folks that are willing to pay money for it. This is perhaps one of the most convincing proof points offered by InPhase with folks like Turner, NASA, USGS, Warner, Ford Motor Company, BAE, NTV and Technicolor listed in their portfolio of customers.

The competitive landscape for InPhase has changed over the past few months with Plasmon, the UDO champions, imploding and the Blue Ray folks struggling with the negative perception of optical as a legitimate enterprise class data storage technology. Going forward the challenge faced by InPhase will be to drive separation between holographic and traditional MO technology. By building a unique identity (brand) and credibility (use cases) InPhase must convince the enterprise storage buying public to accept holographic as a legitimate storage option for enterprise data and not just more of the same. Neither a simple or speedy objective.