Optical libraries adopt blue lasers

By Lisa Coleman

The optical library market is expected to be flat for the next several years, say analysts, but blue-laser optical drive/library/media manufacturers are bullish on the latest technology that is set to take over where magneto-optical (MO) technology left off.

Blue-laser technology enables higher capacity, faster throughput, and cheaper media than MO technology, which is based on red lasers. The first generation of blue-laser technology offers recording capacities ranging from 23GB to 30GB per cartridge—more than doubling the capacity of today's 9.1GB MO drives and cartridges.

Last October, Plasmon began shipping its G-Series libraries with its proprietary Ultra Density Optical (UDO) blue-laser drives. In December, Sony began shipping its Professional Disc for Data (PDD) blue-laser drives, auto-changers, and media.

Next month, Asaca will begin shipping its TeraCart optical libraries with support for Sony's PDD drives and media. The TeraCart libraries include the AM80 (1.8TB), AM240 (5.5TB), and AM420 (9.8TB). Prices start at $20,000.

However, blue lasers are not expected to give the optical library (or jukebox) market much of a boost, according to analysts. Wolfgang Schlichting, research manager of removable storage at International Data Corp. (IDC), says that the optical library market is expected to remain flat for the next several years. IDC predicts that shipments of optical libraries will only grow from 10,500 units in 2003 to 11,000 units in 2007.

Not surprisingly, vendors are more optimistic. For example, Plasmon and Sony are both banking on regulatory compliance laws such as SEC 17a, HIPAA, and Sarbanes-Oxley to pump up interest in optical libraries.

"I don't agree that the market is going to be flat," says Dave DuPont, vice president of marketing at Plasmon, citing regulatory compliance as a major driver for optical libraries.

Blue-laser technology will appeal to users because it offers more capacity at cheaper prices than MO, he says.

Cost could be a major driver, according to IDC's Schlichting. For example, Sony expects 1.5TB rack-mount libraries with its PDD technology to be priced from $19,500, compared to some 1.5TB MO libraries starting at $40,000.

As libraries become less expensive, so will media. Optical media prices are expected to drop to $2 per gigabyte this year. 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 users could move to blue-laser systems because of the lower costs, says Schlichting.

"We think we'll find some incremental business opportunity where CD and DVD libraries have played a role and where MO might have been more expensive," says Michael Hall, Sony's business development manager. "Some of those customers have also found that DVD libraries have not provided the flexibility in performance they were looking for," claims Hall.

Plasmon developed its proprietary UDO technology specifically for the enterprise (as opposed to consumer) market, says DuPont. Sony is targeting a variety of application areas, including enterprise storage, broadcast, and consumer markets.

Notably, Plasmon's UDO and Sony's PDD blue-laser systems aren't compatible.

Vendor support

Hewlett-Packard will integrate UDO drives and media into its optical libraries, and IBM has also announced support for UDO. HP and Plasmon control the majority of the MO jukebox market, according to IDC.

DISC also announced support for UDO drives, which the company will integrate into its Orion series of optical libraries. DISC expects the UDO libraries to be available later this year in capacities ranging from 4.2TB to 31.5TB.

Plasmon has a license agreement with Mitsubishi Kagaku Media (also known as Verbatim in North America and Europe), which will become a second-source manufacturer of UDO media. UDO uses double-sided media with 15GB per side (30GB per disc). The UDO disc needs to be flipped over to access all of its capacity when it is installed in a library. Sony's PDD media has a capacity of 23GB on one side only. The UDO media is encased in a protective cartridge in the same format as 5.25-inch MO cartridges. The drive has an average seek time of 25ms and a transfer rate of up to 8MBps.

Sony's PDD drives have a maximum transfer rate of 9MBps for writes. Sony's 19-inch rack-mountable auto-changer offers up to 1.6TB of native capacity and can be configured with one, two, or four drives.

Sony will offer 5.25-inch rewritable and write-once media at $45 per disc. The company is also working with other manufacturers to provide media for PDD drives. (TDK will supply media for Sony's Professional Disc product—a separate product line targeting broadcast and AV production.)

Software support

On the applications front, K-PAR Archiving announced support for Sony's PDD drives and media in K-PAR's Archimedia hierarchical storage management (HSM) software. The software provides centralized management of CD, DVD, MO, and blue-laser drives and libraries for Windows and Solaris platforms.

Pegasus Disk Technologies' InveStore storage management software for Windows 2000/XP will also support PDD drives and libraries (as well as MO).

Software Architects Inc. (SAI) is supporting PDD with its Disk Drive TuneUp Pro software for Windows.

FujiFilm also is working on blue-laser media. It has developed a dye coating that can be used in manufacturing blue-laser write-once optical discs with capacities of 23.3GB. The dye will eventually allow DVD-R recording at speeds of 1x to 16x, according to a recent announcement.

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

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

This article was originally published on March 01, 2004