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Etched In Stone

We live in a digital world. Precious family photos that once would’ve been recorded on film now exist as digital files. Important documents can now be disseminated and stored with the push of a button, and mp3 technology has forever altered the way we listen to and share our music. What once took up many square feet of storage space in closets and on bookshelves can now be easily stored on computer hard drives, CDs, and DVDs. But just how secure is that data?

Hard drives have been known to crash, taking their data with them. Recovering it can be a costly and frustrating experience. And if you think burning your data onto CDs or DVDs will protect it forever, you’re sadly mistaken. Most experts seem to agree that the lifespan of your run-of-the-mill recordable CD or DVD could be less than 10 years, even if they’re properly stored and protected from the harmful effects of things like UV rays and high temperature and humidity.

The main problem with conventional CD-Rs and DVD-Rs is the layer of organic dye upon which the data is written. This dye degrades normally over time, and exposure to UV rays and high temperature/humidity will accelerate the process, eventually making the data unreadable. Another problem that can affect conventional CD-Rs and DVD-Rs is the material used for the reflective surface, which can be aluminum, silver, silver alloy, or gold. Of these, only gold does not corrode and lose some of its reflectivity, affecting data retrieval. For that reason, it is currently considered the standard for archival CDs and DVDs. But gold is expensive, less reflective than silver, and there is still the problem of dye degeneration. So how can you make sure your data is safe?

A new company called Millenniata has developed technology that may solve that problem. The new technology is called M-READY™ and unlike CD and DVD technology, it etches, rather than burns, data onto the write layer of a DVD-like disc called an M-DISC™. Although the company won’t reveal exactly what materials are used in their M-DISCs, they claim they’re more chemically stable and heat resistant than the materials used in conventional CDs and DVDs. The real key to their longevity, however, is the recording technology, which uses higher temperatures and a laser that’s up to 5-times more powerful than those used in conventional DVD writers to physically engrave data onto an M-DISC’s inorganic layer. It does this by creating tiny voids or holes, called “pits,” rather than simply burning it onto a layer of dye. The folks at Millenniata liken the process to etching the data in stone.

Physically altering the inorganic material means the data layer cannot fade or degrade over time, so theoretically that data should be accessible for as long as the disc survives, barring any physical damage. The question then becomes, how long can a disc survive? According to data compiled by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the substrate materials used in most CDs and DVDs should last for 1,000 years.

To test their technology, Millenniata recently had the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, CA conduct a series of accelerated life tests on their M-DISC, as well as five other brands of conventional archival-quality DVDs, for data longevity and reliability. The M-DISC was the only test specimen that showed no data loss or degradation.

Since writing data to an M-DISC requires higher temperatures and a more powerful laser than conventional CDs or DVDs, using the technology will require new hardware. Millennniata has addressed this issue by partnering with Hitachi-LG Data Storage to manufacture M-READY compatible DVD drives. The demo unit they sent us for evaluation was little more than a modified Blu-Ray disc writer, which is kind of ironic because they don’t have a Blu-Ray version of the M-DISC ready for release yet (it’s coming), but that’s not important. What is important is that any conventional DVD player can read the data on an M-DISC. Equally important is the projected cost of an M-DISC, which should be comparable to a conventional archival-quality DVD.

M-DISC technology is scheduled to hit retail store shelves this year, just in time for the Christmas shopping season no doubt. Will it be a game changer or significantly alter the way we think about data storage? As with most technology, only time will tell. In this case, we have about a thousand years to find out.