What’s next in data storage?

My recent musings on high definition and the state of the technology behind it have spurred me to think about data storage (not that it’s a new subject for me). But so far, I’ve commented only on what’s already been developed, and didn’t take the time to think about what’s next.

What’s the motivation behind this post? It’s simple. For Ligia’s Kitchen, it costs me about 10.5 GB for 5 minutes of final, edited footage of show, with a one-camera setup. What goes into the 10.5GB? There’s the raw footage (and sound files, if I use a standalone mic), the edits, and the final, published footage. When I use two cameras, the space needed can easily go up by 1.5-2.5x, depending on the shots I need to get. I shoot and edit in 1080p, and output to 720p.

My storage needs are okay for now. I’ve got plenty of space, and if I keep going at this rate, I should be fine. But… and there’s always a but, isn’t there… I have more show ideas in mind. And there’s the hypothetical possibility of shooting with a RED camera at some point in the future, if certain factors come together to allow it. So I’m thinking ahead.

Current hard drive technology (bits of data on disks) has certainly come a long way. Those of us who’ve been in the business long enough know what prices used to be like for capacities that are laughable by today’s standards. Back in 1999, I paid $275 for a 27GB hard drive. My laptop’s drive in college could store a grand total of 120MB. And when I began to learn programming, I’d load the code into memory from tape…

I remember being really excited about Hitachi’s new Perpendicular Magnetic Recording Technology, which came out in early 2006. They even had an animation on their website, which they’ve taken down since. That technology is behind all of the new hard drives that are on the market today, by the way. Hitachi came up with a way to get the bits of data to stand up (hence the term perpendicular) instead of lying down on hard drive platters, thus doubling the amount of data that could be stored onto them.

There are two roads ahead when it comes to data storage, of which one is more likely to succeed:

  • Optical storage (this is probably the future of storage)
  • Biological storage

Let’s first look at biological storage. One particular article made the rounds lately: researchers at the Chinese University in Hong Kong have managed to store 90GB of data in 1g of bacteria. While it sounds exciting, the idea of storing my data in petri dishes on my desk doesn’t readily appeal to me, and certain complications come up:

  • 1g of bacteria is about 10 million cells (that’s a LOT); one must start thinking about the potential for bio hazards when you work with bacteria.
  • The data is stored in a bacteria’s DNA, which means it’s encrypted (a good thing), but it’s also subject to significant mutation (a bad thing) and it takes a long time to retrieve it because you need a gene sequencer, which is tedious and expensive (a bad thing).

I’m not against this. Hey, if they can make it safe and fast, okay. But I believe this is going to be relegated to special applications. The article suggests the technique is currently used to store copyright information for newly created organisms (I wonder how many new bacteria researchers as a whole have created, and is it any wonder antibiotics have such a hard time working against them when we keep playing God). I also see this sort of data storage as a way for spies to operate, or for governments to keep certain secrets.

Okay, onto more cheery stuff, like optical storage. I’ve always thought there was massive potential here, and am glad to see significant work has already been done to make this a reality. There are two technologies which are feasible, according to research that’s already been done:

  • HDSS (Holographic Data Storage Systems), which so far can store up to 1TB of data in a crystal the size of a sugar cube, but doesn’t yet allow rewrites
  • 3D optical data storage, which so far can store up to 1TB of data onto a 1.2mm thick optical disc

These developments are very encouraging. Optical storage is safe, and its potential capacities are huge, possibly endless. And when you think about computer hardware, and how manufacturers are looking at using optical technology in the bridges and buses and wires inside the hardware, because it’s incredibly fast, you start to see how optical makes sense. Let’s also not forget fiber optic cabling, and its incredible capacity to carry data. It certainly looks like optical is the future!

So what’s going to happen to the standard 3.5″ form factor of today’s hard drives? Well, it’s likely that it will stay the same, even though it the storage technology inside it might change. We’ll have crystals and lasers instead of platters and heads, but they’ll likely be able to fit them in there somehow. I don’t think we’ll need to start keeping crystal libraries on our desks, like in Superman’s Crystal Cave, and sticking various-sized crystals into our computers any time soon, although it did look pretty cool when Christopher Reeve did it in the movie.

It really all depends on how soon this new technology will come to market. Right now, there’s clearly enough vested interest in the 3.5″ and 2.5″ form factors to motivate drive manufacturers to shoehorn the new technologies into those shapes, but if optical hard drives won’t be here for the next 5-10 years, then it’s possible that the form factor will change as well. We are after all moving to smaller, sleeker shapes for most computers, notebooks and desktops alike.

What comes after High Definition?

Producing (set design, lighting, filming, directing, editing) my wife’s cooking show has gotten me thinking about what comes after HD, because there obviously is a large discrepancy in resolution between full 1080p HD and properly exposed 35mm film (up to 3500p) — as I already mentioned in my post on preserving classic movies.

Yes, high definition is a huge improvement over standard definition, which in turn was a large improvement over early television signals. But televisions and VCRs, in spite of their popularity, are a dismal failure in picture quality compared to what they replaced: film reels and projectors.

Nowadays, we’ve gained some foothold back when it comes to consumer/prosumer video quality. We have ready access to video cameras that will record in HD (at various qualities, given the model and the price), and we have newer computers and televisions that will allow us to play back those videos at their native (720p or 1080p) resolutions. Even websites have begun in recent years to allow us to play back HD videos, and the quality of broadband internet connections has increased to the point where one doesn’t have to wait a half hour or more in order to download/buffer an HD video and play it properly on their computer. We can even play back HD videos from the internet directly on our televisions, thanks to standalone or built-in media players.

But if we’re to get back to the quality of 35mm film and best it, we must keep moving forward. Thankfully, some visionaries have already taken the first steps and have come up with a camera that can record at a similar-to-film resolution: the RED One, which can give us 2300p of extremely high definition digital video. It’s not quite 3000p or 3500p (which would be the equivalent of properly exposed film), but it gets us pretty close, and it’s certainly much better than 1080p.

The RED camera captures each frame of video as a 12-bit RAW image, which means we, as videographers, have much greater freedom than before when editing the video, just like photographers do when they switch from JPG to RAW files. All of a sudden, white balance, exposure, recovery, blacks, vibrance, saturation, and tone adjustments can be made with much more accuracy.

One area where I’d love to see more improvement — although I’m sure it’ll come with time — is RED’s ability to capture more color depth, say 14-bit or 16-bit. Bit depth is still an area where improvement can be made across the board when it comes to digital cameras.

But let’s leave tech specs alone, and think about how we can edit and enjoy the videos we could make with a RED camera. That’s where difficulties come in, because you see, we still can’t properly do that, certainly not with consumer, and not even with prosumer equipment. No, we’d be looking at professional equipment and serious prices. The market just hasn’t caught up.

There are no computers that can display that kind of resolution at full screen, and there are no televisions that can do it, either. TVs and computers are still caught up in the world of 720p and 1080p. And to make things even more complicated, now we’ve got to worry about 3D video, which is nice for some applications, but from my point of view, it’s a distraction, because it adds yet another barrier, another detour, on the road to achieving proper video resolution across the board. Manufacturers, TV stations and filmmakers are jumping on the 3D bandwagon, when they should be worried about resolution.

So, what costs would a filmmaker be looking at if he or she wanted to shoot at the highest possible digital resolution available today (a RED setup)? I crunched some numbers, and mind you, these are just approximations. The costs are likely to be 1.5-2x that much when you account for everything you might need. On a side note, the folks at RED and at Final Cut Pro have worked together quite a bit to ensure that we can edit RED video natively, directly in Final Cut Pro, on a Mac. See this video for an overview.

  • RED One camera: $25,000
  • 35mm RED lens: $4,250
  • 18-85mm RED lens: $9,975
  • RED LCD: $2,500
  • RED CF media and cards: $1,500
  • RED rig: about $2,500
  • add extra $$$ for power, accessories, tripods, other media, etc.
  • RED video card, for encoding and editing video: $4,750
  • Mac Pro editing station: about $7,000-$12,000, depending on your needs, and you may need more than one of these, depending on how big your production is
  • 30″ display: about $1,000-$3,000, depending on your needs, and you may need more than one of these as well, depending on the number of workstations and your display setup
  • Final Cut Studio software: $1,000
  • HDD-based storage for editing and archival: $2,000-$20,000, depending on your needs
  • LTO tape or additional HDD-based storage for backup: costs will vary quite a bit here
  • Specialized cinema hardware and display for showing movies at full resolution: I have no idea what this costs, but it’s likely to go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and not every cinema has it

So at a minimum, we’d be talking about an investment of more than $60,000 in order to work with a RED setup today.

But let’s not get tied up in talking solely about RED cameras. Clearly the entire industry needs to take steps in order to ensure that videos at resolutions greater than 1080p HD can be played across all the usual devices. Unfortunately, they’re still tied up in SD and HD video. Most TV channels still transmit in SD or lower-than-SD video quality (lower than 480p). It’s true, most have always transmitted at broadcast quality (500p or better) but we’ve always had to contend with a lot of signal loss. And nowadays, we still have to pay extra for HD channels, even though they should be the norm, and we should be looking forward.

To that effect, computer displays need to get bigger and better, computer hardware needs to get faster, computer storage needs to expand, media players need to increase their processing power, televisions need to get better and bigger, and broadband internet needs to get faster, ideally around the gigabit range (see this talk from Vinton Cerf on that subject), so that full resolution, 4000K video can move across the internet easily.

For now, if I were to start working on RED, I’d still have to output to 720p or 1080p and keep my full resolution originals archived for another day, somewhere in the future, when consumer-grade electronics have evolved to the point where they can play my videos and films natively.

I for one look forward to the day when YouTube starts to stream 3500p videos, and when we can all play them conveniently and at full resolution on our computers and televisions!

Hardware preview: the ioSafe Rugged Portable

I’m a fan of ioSafe‘s rugged hard drives, which you can trust with your data through very rough conditions. I was glad to write about the ioSafe Solo (their first product), and the ioSafe SSD, because no other company on the market offered such unparalleled protection from destruction.

Now they’re launching a new model, the ioSafe Rugged Portable — their first drive made for travel.

As you can see, they’re using a new design, with a machined Aluminum or Titanium enclosure that can withstand up to 5,000 lbs (Ti) or 2,500 lbs of pressure (Al). The drive is suspended on all six axes of motion, and can withstand a drop from 20′ (SSD version) or 10′ (HDD version).

Of course, the drive can still withstand immersion in water — up to 10′ (Al) or 30′ (Ti), both up to 3 days in duration. And it’s got a whole other bunch of protections built in as well:

  • ChemSafeTM Technology – Full immersion in diesel fuel, oils, hydraulic fluids, aircraft fuels, 12” depth for 1 hour with no data loss per MIL-STD-810G Method 504
  • EnviroSafeTM Technology – Continuous exposure to UV, blowing sand, blowing dust, rain, salt fog, icing or freezing rain, 24 hours with no data loss per MIL-STD-810G Methods 505.4, 506.4, 509.4 and 510
  • AltiSafeTM Technology – High altitude operation. 15K ft. (Alum.) and 30K ft. (SSD and Ti.) rated altitudes per MIL-STD-810G Method 500.4
  • Theft Resistant Kensington® Lock compatible slot solid metal construction – theft protection

As you’ve no doubt gathered so far, there are multiple flavors of the drive, with HDDs or SSDs inside, and Aluminum or Titanium enclosures. And it ships with USB 3.0, FW800 and USB 2.0 connections — your choice.

Possibly the best feature — given the drive’s title — is its weight, which comes to 1 lbs for the Al enclosure and 1.5 lbs for the Ti enclosure.

Drobo S gets USB 3.0 upgrade

Drobo S, the 5-bay, 3-interface storage array from Data Robotics got a neat upgrade to USB 3.0 today. Instead of USB 2.0, it will now have eSATA, FW800 and USB 3.0 ports on its back. This is a hardware refresh, which means the USB 2.0 model has been phased out. You should expect it to be “up to 50% faster than FW800″ when using the USB 3.0 port, according to Data Robotics.

During the press briefing, I asked Mark Fuccio (Data Robotics) whether the 4-bay Firewire Drobo will get a USB 3.0 upgrade as well. He said they have no plans to upgrade it. It will stay as is. Apparently its bandwidth maxes out at FW800 speeds, and adding USB 3.0 to it would be superfluous. Data Robotics recommends that folks get the Drobo S if they want heavy-duty performance.

In other Drobo news, Drobo Sync, the nifty disaster recovery software that was announced for the DroboPro FS, is now available. If you were wondering how Data Robotics is doing these days, they’re growing. And HP has just begun selling Drobos, which is great for them and useful for us. You’ll be able to go online and get a performance HP desktop to help you zoom through your photo or video processing, and also get a Drobo S to help you safely store all those terabytes of data.

The upgraded Drobo S will be available from all the usual retailers like Amazon and B&H Photo, and of course, HP Small Business Direct.

Hardware preview: DroboPro FS

Today, the DroboPro FS will be announced by Data Robotics. It’s the bigger brother of the Drobo FS, and it’s aimed at creative professionals, SOHOs and SMBs.

There was a gap in Drobo’s file sharing lineup. They had a NAS device, sure (the Drobo FS), but it didn’t have the capacity and the bandwidth of the DroboPro FS, which has two Gigabit Ethernet ports and eight drive bays.

Its ethernet ports can be configured two ways:

  1. On two different subnets, for offsite file replication, and
  2. Failover mode, where one port takes over if the other one dies

The really nice part here is the DroboPro FS works seamlessly with a new piece of software (to be introduced shortly) by Data Robotics, called Drobo Sync. The way it works makes the DroboPro FS the perfect candidate for offsite backups, for disaster recovery purposes.

Say you have two DroboPro FS units. You keep the first one in your company’s server room, do your internal backups to it, over the local network, and then run a quick DroboPro FS to DroboPro FS initial sync job using Drobo Sync. When that’s done, you can take the 2nd DroboPro FS unit to your disaster recovery site, plug it in over there, and Drobo Sync will start doing incremental backups automatically, saving you bandwidth and validating each file on a block-by-block level to make sure the data is identical on both Drobos. This is a solution that would be perfect for overworked sysadmins, because the setup and administration are easy, and the total cost is less than that of comparative solutions.

It uses the same form factor as the DroboPro and the DroboElite, which means it shares the same measures, and the same rack-mount kit. And you can also customize it with Drobo Apps, just like the Drobo FS.

A base DroboPro FS costs around $1,999, but you can buy it bundled with hard drive sets (8TB, 16TB and 32TB). It’s available directly from Data Robotics, or from B&H Photo, Amazon and other retailers.

Win your choice of a Drobo S or Drobo FS – enter now!

:arrow: Updated 9/24/10: The winner of the drawing is Keith LaBarre! He’ll soon get to pick between a Drobo S ($799) or a Drobo FS ($699). Congratulations, you lucky guy! :-)

My thanks go out to Data Robotics for their very generous offer, and to all for your participation! Data Robotics will be in touch with each of you to provide you with a discount coupon good toward a shiny new Drobo. Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

I’m happy to announce an awesome contest where you can win your choice of a Drobo S or Drobo FS. It starts today, Tuesday, 9/21/10, at 12:01 AM Pacific Time, and it runs until Friday, 9/24/10, at 9:00 AM Pacific Time. That’s not a lot of time, so enter now!

All you have to do is to fill in your info right here. The winner will be picked at random and announced here on my website, on my Twitter account, and on the @Drobo Twitter account.

Although there can be only one winner, everyone who enters will get a nifty discount good toward the purchase of a new Drobo. So go ahead, enter now!

Time of capture metadata bug in iPhone 4 movie clips

Updated 9/12/10: I’m not sure any more if this is an iPhone 4 glitch or an Adobe Lightroom 3.2 bug. A thread has been opened in the Adobe Lightroom Forum, if you’d like to chime in there.

After upgrading the iPhone with iOS 4.1, I recorded a new video clip, imported it and some new photos into Lightroom, and the same wrong date and time appear for it.

According to a comment on my thread in the Apple Support Forums, the correct time of capture is displayed for iPhone 4 video clips elsewhere but Lightroom. And I also noticed that Lightroom displays the very same incorrect date and time of capture for video clips taken with the Nokia N95.

Updated 9/27/10: I’ve been in touch with Adobe, and it turns out this is a “designed” behavior. That is, because movie clips do not have EXIF data (there is no standard for EXIF data when it comes to them), they are assigned a random date and time as they’re imported into Lightroom. HDSLR video files are accompanied by a .THM file which stores the necessary EXIF data, and that’s why they show up properly.

Quoting from Davide M.’s (Adobe) response:

So I then had a look at our bug database and it turns our this is a known issue with mobile phones although somewhat out-with our control. Movie files do not technically have EXIF data or at least the standard has not yet been established. Since the import process can assign a timestamp to a movie file, we ignore this time stamp since it can be inaccurate, as shown by the example of your video file being changed by the simple process of email. Other applications while appearing to work fine, in fact are simply showing you the files creation date. If you were to duplicate the file, you will see that the timestamp in these other applications will change to the time the file duplication took place.

The reason why most DSLRs work is because they create a sidecar file containing that information. Files with no timestamp, such as the ones from the iPhone and the Nokia N95 do not create this and hence default to 1/1/04 when looking at the Loupe information overlay.

In the example you used, the Canon 7D creates a .THM sidecar file with the same name as the video file it generates. This contains all the data associated with the video file.

Still, this is problematic behavior, as it introduces erroneous times of capture in these movie files. So I asked Davide if it would be possible for Lightroom to be updated so that it writes a more accurate time of capture for these movie files. Thankfully, he agreed to log it as a feature request. Time will tell if this will make it into a future LR update. Quoting him below:

That’s certainly something I can log in our feature request list. Because this has been deemed ‘as designed’ by our engineering team (due to the lack of EXIF data in movie files) it is not technically a bug. None the less, I can see that this would be a useful addition to our application. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Thank you, Davide!

After downloading a few movie clips taken with an iPhone 4 (running iOS 4.0.1) onto my computer, I saw right away that their time of capture was incorrect, even though the iPhone’s time had been set up correctly. I took a few screenshots of the movie clips in Lightroom, which you can see below. Click on each to view them large.

This time metadata error happens when using either the main (back-facing) HD video camera, as shown above, or the front-facing VGA camera, as you can see from the screenshot below.

It looks like iPhone 4 records the same time for all video clips recorded with it, set at 1/1/04 1:44:24 AM.

It goes without saying that any digital video camera worth its salt will record the time of capture properly. The question, naturally, is when Apple will fix this glaring bug?

For comparison purposes, here is a screenshot of a Canon 7D movie clip, also shown in Lightroom. The time of capture was recorded properly, as was to be expected.