Imagine being an explorer, cracking open a 10,000-year-old tomb, uncovering a priceless ancient artifact – and getting rickrolled. Our deep descendants might just get the pleasure, thanks to a Global Music Vault due to be built in Norway, featuring Microsoft’s Project Silica, a tough new data storage medium that’s never gonna give you up.
There’s a common saying that once something is on the internet, it’s there forever, and even if you delete it, it will persist in some server somewhere. But that’s demonstrably untrue – just try to find your cringey old MySpace page. Even the most secure data center is vulnerable to the increasingly common and severe environmental disasters brought on by climate change. Many will lose their data if there’s a long-term power outage, or a large-scale electromagnetic pulse from an attack or, worse still, the Sun. Even in the best-case scenario, physical storage media like Blu-Rays, archival tape, hard drives and even solid state drives will degrade in decades.
To ensure that our history lives on for longer, Microsoft has been experimenting with storing data on glass with what it calls Project Silica. In 2019, the company demonstrated the tech in a partnership with Warner Bros by writing the 1978 movie Superman onto a slide of quartz silica glass and reading it back. The slide, measuring just 75 x 75 mm (3 x 3 in) and 2 mm (0.08 in) thick, could hold as much as 75.6 GB, and remained readable even after being scratched, baked, boiled, microwaved, flooded and demagnetized.
A few years on and it seems that Microsoft has improved the system even further. That storage capacity has been expanded more than 100 times, to over 7 TB, and the company has increased its claimed lifespan from 1,000 years to a whopping 10,000 years.
Microsoft has also demonstrated how an archive based on the technology would function. Thousands of glass slides, carefully cataloged, line library shelves, where they can sit waiting their turn for potentially centuries or millennia. When someone does need to retrieve a piece of data, robots run along tracks on the shelves to the right spot, grab the required slide, and ferry it back to the reader.
In-house, Microsoft has plans to implement this kind of system to its Azure data centers, but it’s also working with other companies. A venture capital company called Elire has announced plans to build a Global Music Vault in Svalbard, Norway, which you might recognize as the home of the Global Seed Vault. This auditory archive is designed to safeguard “musical heritage” for future generations, all the way from classical operas to modern pop and indigenous music, the companies say.
As intriguing as the idea is, we have to admit it smacks of a publicity stunt more than an earnest act of preservation. Even if the data is secure, are the robots the new points of failure? What’s to protect them from fires, floods, EMPs, and all the other threats? What about the readers, which are delicate lasers driven by algorithms? In all likelihood, any explorers in the year 12,000 that might stumble onto the remains of the Global Music Vault would just display it in a museum as a collection of crystal coasters.
But there are benefits to this glass data storage in the (much) shorter term. For one, it would slash the huge power bills that current data centers ring up just trying to keep the place cool and online – once these slides are written to, they’re stable at room temperature and don’t need any energy to retain their data. Plus companies won’t need to waste time, energy and money transferring data from failing drives or tapes every few years.
The Project Silica team says that there are still three or four developmental stages to go through before the technology is ready for commercial use. The team describes the system in the video below.
Storing data for thousands of years | Microsoft Project Silica