M-Disc: the DVD that "lasts forever"
All archival methods have their strengths and weaknesses, and many of the latter involve longevity. Hard disks, flash storage, tape, DVDs: they all degrade, and whether you're a lone consumer with a photo collection or a large business with vital files, losing data to the ravages of time is tough to avoid. It’s a problem the cloud may well yet solve, but even there you’re placing your trust in a third-party, and as we’ve seen in the last few weeks even the cloud is vulnerable to the elements.
The ideal solution would combine security and permanence with the affordability and convenience of using standard, everyday tools. A company called Millenniata claims to have developed exactly that.
The M-Disc shares the same size, shape and 4.7GB capacity of a DVD, and indeed can be read by any standard DVD drive, yet Millenniata says this special disc “cannot be overwritten, erased, or corrupted by natural processes”. As the website says, it’s “the first ever permanent file backup disc that lasts forever”.
How it works
The key is in the materials used in each disc. The diagram below shows the make-up of a standard DVD and an M-Disc, and you can see it’s the data layers that differ. A standard DVD has its data burned into a layer of organic dye, and it’s this dye that’s most susceptible to degradation by light, heat and humidity. Millenniata says a DVD kept in sub-optimal conditions has an average lifespan of less than five years.
The M-Disc does away with this layer, replacing it with a layer of “chemically stable and heat-resistant materials” that remains solid at temperatures up to 500°C. Using a much higher-powered laser, the innermost layers are burned away to leave a physical pit, the surrounds of which then cool to form a rock-like polycrystalline structure. It’s “the modern, digital equivalent of engraving data, literally, in stone”.
We can’t possibly test the kind of claims made for the M-Disc -- in dry conditions at room temperature the data should remain readable after 10,000 years, for example, and the polycarbonate becomes the weak link at 1,000 years -- but a pretty solid second opinion comes from tests carried out at the US Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) facility at China Lake, California. There, engineers took DVDs from five other brands, conducted an accelerated life-cycle test where the disks were exposed to 85°C heat, 85% relative humidity and full spectrum light, and observed the increase in read errors.
The result? “Every other brand tested showed large increases in data errors after the stress period. Many of the discs were so damaged that they could not be recognised as DVDs by the disc analyser.” As for the tested M-Discs, "the data recorded on these discs was recoverable. The Millenniata discs were the only ones tested that maintained information integrity".
We obviously can't hope to replicate such tests in our Labs, but we nevertheless burned a few sample M-Discs to ensure the compatibility works as Millenniata claims. Our discs burned perfectly at 4x and were readable on every standard DVD drive we put them in, plus the LG drive happily read every other type of disc we fed it.
Who's it for?
Millenniata believes the M-Disc has wide appeal, but is it more of a consumer solution for keen photographers or a realistic option for a large business? It's both, according to Dennis Decker, VP of Strategic Partnerships at Millenniata.
"The M-Disc is for any person or organisation that has a critical set of data that must be saved for long periods of time," he told us. "Critical data may be influenced by emotion, as in the case of photographs, or mandate, as in the case of business records. It's currently being sold to both commercial and consumer customers as well as government agencies and educational facilities in the USA."
There's no doubt it ticks a lot of boxes. As the NAWCWD report says, it's "of great interest because of the use of non-reactive data layers and backward compatibility", and it's the latter of these that makes it more than just a curiosity. To burn an M-Disc you need a special M-Writer with a more powerful laser, but they're not expensive: the LG drive we used can be bought for £25, works with off-the-shelf burning software and is backwards compatible with the usual DVD formats.
"HLDS [Hitachi-LG Data Storage] is Millenniata’s current drive partner," said Decker. "The drives are under the LG brand for consumer purchase, or simply as an M-Disc-enabled drive when part of an OEM system such as Acer or Dell computers." The technology becoming standard in laptop and PC drives is surely the goal; Millenniata is in talks to bring more manufacturers on board next year.
As for larger capacities, a second layer could be added like a normal DVD, but that's not aiming high enough. "Millenniata is currently developing an M-Disc Blu that has a capacity of 25GB," said Decker, "so there is little need to go to market with a 9GB dual-layer DVD. The M-Disc Blu should be available in the first half of next year, and a dual-layer version of that disc should be available by year-end 2013."
A 50GB lifetime storage solution sounds impressive, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. What we have right now is an affordable DVD writer and 4.7GB discs -- enough to get started while you wait for the technology to make its progress. You'll have to pay a €10 charge to ship a drive from DuTec in Ireland if you want one today, with full UK retail distribution expected to begin "in the coming weeks". Once it does, given the heady claims and the low cost of entry, we can see the M-Disc solving a problem for a wide variety of customers.