Blue-laser optical systems debut

By Lisa Coleman

This month, Plasmon and Sony began shipping optical disc drives based on new blue-laser technology. Libraries based on the drives are expected early next year.

The long-awaited blue-laser technology enables cheaper media, higher capacity, and faster throughput than magneto-optical (MO) technology that was based on red lasers. The first generation of blue-laser optical drives will offer recording capacities ranging between 23GB and 30GB—more than doubling the capacity of today's 9.1GB MO drives.

Blue (or violet) lasers take advantage of blue light's shorter wavelength for recording data. Therefore, the space needed on the recording layer for each bit of data is smaller than for data written with red lasers.

However, blue-laser technology and federal regulations such as SEC 17a, HIPAA, and Sarbanes-Oxley are not expected to energize the relatively small market for optical libraries, according to analysts.

The optical library market is expected to remain flat for the next several years, says Wolfgang Schlichting, research manager of removable storage at International Data Corp. IDC predicts that shipments of optical libraries (or jukeboxes) will grow from 10,500 units this year to just under 11,000 units in 2007.

Click here to enlarge image


On the positive side, blue-laser technology is expected to knock down the price of optical media to $2 per gigabyte. The price is expected to fall to $0.50/GB by 2007 when blue-laser media capacities jump to more than 100GB. Current MO and DVD jukebox users will tend to move to blue-laser systems because of the decreased cost, says Schlichting.

Compared to less-expensive tape and disk systems, optical storage vendors have been fighting an uphill battle. However, one potential advantage of optical media is its long shelf life. In general, optical media lasts twice as long as tape and with regulatory compliance requiring 20+ years of records retention in some cases, optical media and libraries will be hard to overlook, according to some analysts.

"In an environment where there are regulations that need to be complied with for archiving certain kinds of data, this could prove to be very beneficial technology," says John Monroe, a research vice president at Gartner.

This month, Plasmon's Ultra Density Optical (UDO) blue-laser drives will be available to end users. (The company began shipping to OEMs, system integrators, and ISVs last quarter.) Hewlett-Packard is integrating UDO drives and media into its optical libraries and IBM has announced support for the technology, according to Dave DuPont, vice president of marketing at Plasmon. HP and Plasmon control the vast majority of the MO jukebox market, according to IDC's Schlichting.

UDO uses double-sided media for capacities of 15GB per side (30GB per disc). The UDO drive uses a 405 nanometer laser and the same lens used in MO drives. A newer lens will be used in future generations of UDO drives.

UDO media is encased in a protective cartridge in the same format as 5.25-inch MO cartridges. The UDO drive features an average seek time of 25ms and up to an 8MBps transfer rate.

Plasmon plans to integrate UDO drives into its G-Series (MO-based) libraries and will offer a program to upgrade existing G-Series libraries to accommodate UDO. The G-Series libraries are available with 64, 104, 238, 438, and 638 slots, ranging from 720GB to 19.3TB. The company's M-Series libraries will not support UDO.

Plasmon will supply UDO media as will second-source vendors, although Plasmon has not yet announced the other sources. The list price of UDO-R (WORM) media will be $60. Pricing for UDO-RW media has not yet been established.

Earlier this year, DISC also announced support for UDO drives and is integrating the drives into its Orion series of optical libraries. DISC expects the UDO libraries to be available early next year in capacities ranging from 4.2TB to 31.5TB.

Sony also is producing blue-laser drives and media, called Professional Disc for Data (PDD). Shipments were expected this month. The company will integrate the drives into its optical libraries, including an auto-changer in a 6U form factor with 63 slots, two drives, and 1.5TB of capacity.

The PDD media stores 23.3GB on one side only. The drive will sustain a maximum transfer rate of 9MBps for writes. Sony will offer 5.25-inch rewritable and write-once media at $45 per disc.

Notably, the Sony and Plasmon technologies are incompatible, says Gartner's Monroe. The UDO and PDD cannot be used interchangeably.

The key difference between the Sony and Plasmon technologies is the cartridge. "UDO uses a cartridge that is almost the same as an MO cartridge, so it can be integrated into existing MO libraries very easily," says IDC's Schlichting.

Sony's cartridge is based on its Blu-Ray consumer blue-laser technology, which will give Sony some leverage for its next-generation enterprise and broadcast products, according to Schlichting. "But since PDD is a different cartridge, jukebox vendors will have to modify MO or DVD libraries to accommodate the new technology," he says.

Commercialization of blue lasers dates back to 2000 when Hewlett-Packard, Plasmon, and Sony formed the UDO consortium, but Sony later exited and focused on its own blue-laser technology (for both consumer and enterprise use). Plasmon eventually bought the rights to UDO.

Meanwhile, a separate consortium led by Sony developed consumer blue-laser technology (Blu-Ray), which is currently available in Japan.

Both Sony and Plasmon have road maps for second- and third-generation products offering 50-60GB and 100-120GB, respectively.

Other vendors such as Fujitsu are also investigating blue-laser technology.

This article was originally published on December 01, 2003