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The M-Disc – Durable But Possibly Doomed

The recently released Millenniata M-Disk is an optical disc that can be used for a thousand years (hence the name). Hitachi makes drives that use lasers five times more powerful than a traditional DVD writer. The discs contain the same amount of data as conventional DVDs, designed to be read – but not written – by conventional DVD drives.

How do they do it?

Commercially produced pre-recorded CDs and DVDs are based on a series of depressions (holes) and lands (non-holes) molded into the transparent polycarbonate bottom layer of the disc. On top is a thin metal reflective layer. A laser shines through the bottom of the plate, and the difference in reflectance between the depressions is read by the drive as data.

Both DVD and CD are a type of optical disc, as the data is read optically with laser light.

The pits are on top of the polycarbonate layer, which is covered by a shiny metal layer to reflect the laser. There is a layer of varnish to protect the glossy layer and then (sometimes) artwork on top.

The construction of writable discs is roughly the same, but instead of pits cast into the polycarbonate layer, there is a layer containing light-sensitive paint, topped with a thin metal reflective layer. The laser writes to the disc by changing the color of the ink. The driver reads the difference in paint reflectivity instead of pits.

The new M-Disc it uses a laser to etch pits in the writable layer, rather than changing the color of the ink. The laser then reads the difference in the reflectivity of the medium in the data layer. Perhaps (since the disc is backwards compatible with standard DVD readers) there is a mirroring layer on top of that – or the data layer itself is mirrored. So as a readable medium it works very much like a manufactured music CD, where the physical pits provide the difference in reflectivity when a laser shines on it.

The manufacturer claims that these discs will be readable for a thousand years, based on the fact that the polycarbonate layer (the same polycarbonate layer shared by all CDs) should last for a thousand years, but the data layer, which they say is “rock-like” (but secret composition) is permanent as long as it is protected by the polycarbonate layer. Hey, isn’t metal so “rocky”?

But don’t worry—they go one step further, test their media against other writable media, and come out way ahead. The lack of a test against manufactured CDs is noteworthy.

How long do conventional optical discs last?

Depending on the ink used, the shelf life of a writable CD or DVD is usually 10-100 years.

According to Kodak’s testing, “with 95% confidence, 95% of the population of KODAK recordable CDs will have a lifetime of more than 217 years when stored in the dark at 25°C and 40% relative humidity after being recorded in KODAK . PCD Writer 200.”

However, said durability will vary depending on exposure to heat, UV light, moisture and possibly other environmental considerations. As a result, although the media is expected to last for ten years (or 217 years), some recordable CDs fail after 3-5 years. Most manufacturers claim a shelf life of 5-10 years.

How long does a pre-recorded CD last?

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR.org), a stakeholder in the reliable storage of data, says expectations vary between 20 and 100 years for these discs. It is also said that there is consensus among manufacturers that recordable CDs and DVDs, CD-R, DVD-R and DVD+R discs should have a life expectancy of 100-200 years or more under recommended storage conditions and be rewritable (CD-RW, DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM) discs have a life expectancy of at least 25 years.

M-Disc has a lifetime of 1000 years.

Now that data can last for a thousand years (like books kept under the best conditions), it’s great. But what about the ability to read discs a thousand years from now?

CD-ROM readers became popular around 1983. Although they were a bit expensive, they could store around 700 MB of data. About 5 years later, drives that could write to recordable CDs were released commercially, and these drives became popular in the 1990s. DVDs didn’t hit the market until around 1996 and could hold around 4.6GB of data – more than six times the amount of data in the same space as a CD. In 1997, DVD-R was released, allowing users to record their own DVDs. One I bought around 2000 cost about $2000. At the time of writing (late 2011), such a drive is listed for around $40. As of 2005, a dual-layer DVD that can store twice as much as a standard DVD has been commercially available, and a new dual-layer DVD writer can be purchased today for about $50. Blu-Ray was commercially released in 2006, a disc can hold 50 GB of data, and a Blu-Ray writer can be purchased for about $120 today.

The moral of this part of the story is that formats change.

We are looking for more and faster storage in smaller and cheaper data carriers. CDs have been the dominant form of optical media for about 15 years—roughly the practical lifespan of the media. DVDs became the dominant form of optical media, but within ten years incompatible developments were made. The DVD is designed to last 15 or 20 years – pretty close to the life expectancy of the disc. We’ve only had Blu-Ray and dual-layer DVDs for a few years, and I’d bet on a phase-out within another ten years.

I myself am currently trying to unload a cabinet full of removable media drives. There are a variety of optical, magneto-optical, tape, and other removable magnetic media drives such as Zip disk, Syquest, and others. For more than a decade I have offered to transfer data from an old format to something currently readable. In the last five years, this part of my business has ceased to exist. I’ve tried selling these drives on ebay and other manufacturers, but there is no market for them. There is only one niche market, and the distributors of such devices can’t seem to get them off the ground either. I can’t sell them! Many of these are newer formats than CD and some to DVD. At one time, some of these formats were near-standard and ubiquitous as backup tools.

It is commendable that Millenniata has created writable media that they claim will last for a thousand years. Their media certainly seems more durable than other optical media. But the driving technology (as I mentioned earlier) is the ever-increasing storage space, ever-faster storage in ever-smaller, ever-cheaper data carriers. Millenniata comes out of the gate with slower, more expensive media, using (presumably) more expensive drives. If technology history is any guide, these drives and media will not become standard and will have a much shorter lifespan than 15 years. Some ten years from now, these media will be as easy to view and read as 8mm film is today. In a hundred years, no one will know what they are, much less a thousand.

With their great YouTube videos and a logo I love, I think they’ll make a small, short but exciting splash. It’s great that they can withstand being pounded on a table or dipped in liquid nitrogen, but how many of us have this problem? The ExtremeTech website is certainly excited about them “M-Disc is a DVD made of stone that will last 1000 years” but ends up drawing a similar conclusion to mine.

M-Disc is a good idea, but ultimately not much more useful than the faster, higher performance media and technology that is already on the market for less. If this is their only product, they might find the records intact hundreds of years from now, but I’m not sure it will be the company.

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