Optical formats spar over 20GB mark

Posted on January 01, 2001

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BY LISA COLEMAN

Hitting the 20GB mark is the next milestone for high-capacity optical technology. So far, that magic number has eluded optical manufacturers and taken its toll on one company that couldn't deliver on its promise of higher capacity.

Research and development efforts continue, but it will be at least six months before higher-capacity drives will be available and another two years before the technology will be incorporated into jukeboxes. Analysts are skeptical that manufacturers will be able to deliver higher-capacity optical technology as promised.

Late last year, both Sony and Maxoptix announced development efforts for higher-capacity optical technology. Maxoptix scheduled first shipments of its Optical Super Density (OSD) drives by the middle of this year. The drives offer up to 20GB of random-access capacity on a single, double-sided optical disk. Sony said it will surpass the 20GB mark and debut its Ultra Density Optical (UDO) disk technology, slated for delivery for high-end markets in late 2002, with 40GB per cartridge. Each company is planning next-generation devices, with Maxoptix planning to ship second-generation OSD targeting 40GB in 2002.

Both OSD and UDO are slated as the next leap forward in optical-technology capacity, which is currently capped at 9.1GB with the recent release of fifth-generation magneto-optical (MO) technology from Sony. OSD and UDO media will be offered in ISO-standard 5.25-inch cartridges-the same size as MO cartridges-for integration into MO library systems.

"I believe they [Maxoptix and Sony] will come to market, but as with any new technology, there are usually delays," says Mary Craig, principal analyst for optical storage, Gartner Group's Dataquest division.

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One company that suffered from technology delays was TeraStor, which developed Near-Field Record-ing (NFR) to enable 20GB capacities per disk surface. First announced in 1997, NFR technology was scheduled for release in 1998, but was delayed. After numerous delays, TeraStor was not able to deliver NFR. "TeraStor couldn't deliver and went out of business. So we're here three years later and vendors are still talking about 20GB per side," cautions Craig.

Optical technology has been struggling to find its place among technologies that offer higher-capacity points at lower prices. "We have all these RAID systems blooming up all over the place, and for backup, the tried-and-true technology has been tape. Optical has been struggling somewhere in the middle," says Craig. Optical has found a niche in document imaging and archiving, applications for the insurance and medical industries, and the government. However, optical tape library shipments have decreased for five consecutive years. Craig expects this trend to continue, although she believes there is a shift to higher-end jukeboxes, which may brighten the flat revenue figures.

Sony faces some technology hurdles before it can bring UDO to market. UDO will use violet laser technology, although violet lasers will not be commercially available until 2002. Violet laser is one step up from its predecessor red laser by doubling areal density and increasing data transfer rates. However, Sony is confident that violet lasers will be in mass production in time for UDO's product commercialization, according to Toshi Kawai, marketing manager of magneto-optical drives for Sony Electronics' Component Company.

UDO is slated to replace ISO 5.25-inch MO in jukeboxes but will not be record/playback compatible with the current MO format. Having the same external dimensions was a requirement from Sony's jukebox partners who can leverage existing jukebox designs for UDO. Jukebox users and manufacturers preferred a capacity increase from 9.1GB to 40GB in-stead of read and write compatibility, according to Kawai.

While Sony waits for violet laser technology, Maxoptix will use red lasers to achieve 20GB per cartridge and eventually incorporate violet laser technology into next-generation OSD products. "We put all of our efforts and advancement in the area of lens design with Pentex," says Maxoptix's Fred Bedard, senior vice president of sales and marketing. Maxoptix is partnering with Asahi/Pentax to create the optics component of the drive, Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. is producing the new OSD media, and Lafe Group of Hong Kong will manufacture the flying heads used for magnetic field modulation recording.

Sony's UDO technology will be incorporated into Hewlett-Packard's optical jukebox products for enterprise document management and archiving in late 2002. HP plans to deliver UDO technology-based jukeboxes, with capacities approaching 10TB in a single cabinet. Also, Plasmon says its optical storage automation products would support UDO by late 2002.

Maxoptix and Sony did not announce pricing for their respective technologies and products. However, Maxoptix will base its first-generation OSD product price on the 9.1GB MO drive benchmark price, which currently starts at $2,600 MSRP.

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