New storage technology promises increased capacity, reduced cost

April 30, 2004

Storage technology that capitalizes on the short wavelength and better optics possible with blue laser light is filtering into the medical imaging industry. Ultradensity optical (UDO) technology stores 30 gigabytes on a single cartridge-three times the

Storage technology that capitalizes on the short wavelength and better optics possible with blue laser light is filtering into the medical imaging industry. Ultradensity optical (UDO) technology stores 30 gigabytes on a single cartridge-three times the capacity of DVDs and magneto-optical (MO) media-and it provides that storage at or below current costs. Best of all, costs could go even lower, as future generations are released.

David DuPont, vice president of marketing at Plasmon, said the company plans to double storage capacity at least every 18 months, reaching 120 GB, and possibly even 240 GB, within three years. This continued development will make UDO ever more appealing.

"With the introduction of each suceeding generation, we will be cutting our per-gigabyte prices in half," he said.

UDO was introduced only last November, but the technology is already beginning to appear in different companies' data archive systems. Most of Plasmon's OEM agreements are confidential, but in March the company formally announced a contract to supply UDO drives and media to Hewlett Packard for inclusion in its StorageWorks Optical Libraries.

"We have invested almost $25 million. Because we have invested all this money, we have been able to convince other major players to adopt this technology," DuPont said. "HP has announced support for it and, if you look at the manufacturers of optical libraries for professional use, there are really just two: HP and us."

Plasmon, like HP, sells archives directly to IT integrators and users. The company works with the providers of other equipment to ensure their libraries and drives are compatible and practical. In January, it launched a version of its G-series that is compatible with the IBM eServer iSeries. Plasmon worked closely with IBM to develop this version of its 5.25-inch optical libraries, which read both 30-GB UDO and 9.1-GB MO cartridges.

Outfitted with UDO drives and media, the high-end Enterprise G-Series libraries come with up to six drives and as many as 638 cartridge slots, storing almost 20 terabytes. Mid- and low-tier offerings have fewer drives and fewer slots but still store more than 3 TB and nearly 1 TB, respectively. These systems range in price from under $8000 to well over $100,000.

Plasmon has been in the data storage business for almost 20 years, making MO media, the drives that read them, and the jukeboxes in which they fit. U.S. sales and library manufacturing are based in Colorado Springs, but worldwide headquarters are in Cambridge, U.K. Plasmon has regional sales offices throughout Europe and North America.

The company last year achieved $95 million primarily on the sale of MO and DVD media, drives, and libraries. It expanded its offerings in mid-April with the acquisition of Raidtec, an Irish developer and manufacturer of storage area network (SAN) and network attached storage (NAS) solutions.

Plasmon paid $6.1 million for the Irish company, which generated $6.3 million in sales over the last 12 months. In the 15 months leading up to the acquisition, Raidtec and Plasmon were partners, building a next-generation product that bundles Raidtec's storage networking and RAID technologies with Plasmon's libraries, providing Plasmon with the capability to deliver a complete archival solution.

Acquiring Raidtec was the next logical step in the relationship, according to Plasmon CEO Nigel Street. The acquisition allows Plasmon to benefit directly from Raidtec's 12 years of experience and core technology in NAS operating systems and controllers. Plasmon will continue to market and support existing Raidtec products, while planning to introduce new products being developed. The products will continue to be sold worldwide through existing channels under the Raidtec brand.

The buyers of these and Plasmon's other products are in the financial community, government agencies, and-increasingly-medicine, which became the company's biggest source of revenue even before UDO was launched. Customers can buy UDO cartridges from Plasmon or Mitsubishi, which has licensed the technology. Switching to UDO from the industry benchmark MO shouldn't be a problem, according to DuPont, since both use standard 5.25-inch cartridges and UDO drives read both types of media. The drives will also be backward-compatible and the media forward-compatible.

"So the 240-GB drive will be able to read the 30-GB disks," he said.

For the time being, Plasmon is the only source of UDO drives and jukebox libraries, but that may soon change. Once UDO hits its stride, company strategists plan to license the drive technology as well. Customers like having more than one source from which to buy, according to DuPont. Licensing the technology to other vendors provides that choice, while accelerating acceptance by using more distribution channels and increasing awareness.

Unlike DVDs, ultradensity optical technology will likely remain a professional storage medium. The consumer market is basically sewn up by companies such as Sony, which helped develop UDO along with Plasmon and Hewlett Packard as part of a consortium. Sony opted to license its UDO rights to Plasmon, choosing to concentrate on the next generation of consumer data storage, according to DuPont. HP chose to license its rights regarding UDO to Plasmon, but for a different reason.

"HP decided to purchase (UDO technology) from us," DuPont said. "So they allowed us to move ahead with the technology."

UDO packs more data into its cartridges through the use of blue rather than red lasers. The shorter wavelength and better optics possible with blue laser light allow more dots to be written on the media, which itself is unique. The recording process changes the structure of the material from amorphous to crystalline, making the disk and its recorded data highly resistant to damage from the otherwise destructive force of magnetic fields, temperature, and humidity.

"People want their data to be stored simply, effectively, and securely at a low cost," DuPont said. "That is what we strove for with this technology."