History of Optical Data Storage

Instructor: Randall Panduren

Randy is an ITIL certified IT Manager and Technical Professional with more than 20 years' experience in Information Technology.

Optical data storage has proven to be a reliable and popular option for retaining data. Learn how the technology evolved into the forms we see today, and what is in store for the future.

A Brief History of Optical Data Storage

Long ago people realized light could be used to convey information. For example, a beacon of light from a lighthouse could help sailors navigate near land in the dark of night. But what about using light to store information? That took a little longer, but 20th century technological advances made it possible.

Optical data storage technologies use lasers to write to, and read from, small discs that contain a light-sensitive layer upon which data can be stored. One thing that sets optical data storage apart from other storage formats is that the discs themselves are small, portable, and do not wear out easily with continuous use. This makes them particularly useful for storing data.

Like most technologies, optical storage had a long evolution. Early versions of optical discs were created by researchers in the 1960s. There were some optical disc technologies on the market in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but they were mainly for movies and entertainment, and not for data storage. Optical data storage didn't come into its own until the 1980s, when CDs (Compact Discs) were developed.


While CDs were initially popular for audio recording, it wasn't long before they found their way into the realm of data storage. As technology improved, the equipment needed to create and read CDs became small enough to fit into a typical PC computer, and eventually even smaller versions were created for laptops. This opened up the technology to businesses and home users alike.

Standard CDs could hold about 700 megabytes of data. That's enough room for 80 minutes of music, or over 500 photos, depending on photo file sizes. While this volume was acceptable for many years, eventually came the need for optical storage that could hold even larger amounts of data. The maximum capacity of CDs had been reached, so what to do?

DVD-RWs could hold 8.5 gigabytes of data and be reused.

The advent of DVDs (Digital Versatile Disc) in the late 1990s solved this problem. Although DVDs were the same size as CDs, they could hold 8.5 gigabytes of data, more than twelve times that of a standard CD. DVDs could hold full-length movies, or thousands of photos and songs. This was achieved mainly by the use of a different wavelength of red laser light than what was used for CDs. Along the way, additional innovations led to the creation of CD-RW and DVD-RW (RW for Rewritable), which allows the same disc to be reused hundreds of times.

A Blu-ray disc has the most capacity of modern optical storage.

In 2006 came Blu-ray, and once again even more data could be stored in the now-familiar disc format. While Blu-ray discs look very similar to DVDs and CDs, they can hold much more data due to the use of a blue laser (which has a higher frequency), rather than the red laser used for CDs and DVDs. While a standard Blu-ray disk can hold approximately 25 gigabytes, some recent Blu-ray models can hold up to 128 gigabytes. That's more than 180 times that of a CD!

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