Optics for the Cloud

Optics for the Cloud




We seek to spur cross-disciplinary research between the optics community and computer scientists at this exciting intersection between physics and computer science. What new computation models make sense? How could end-to-end systems be built spanning storage, compute, and networking—in the optical domain?

At Microsoft Research Cambridge, we are creating disruptive technologies for the cloud by using optics. Most technology used in data centers today was designed before the cloud existed and is hindered by its legacy design. We are inventing future, non-legacy-based technologies to empower the next generation of the cloud; by creating new types of storage, network and compute resources that exploit optics.

Learn more about Systems and Networking at Microsoft Research Cambridge.

PhD Opportunity – High port-count photonic switches with high-precision assembly

The successful candidate will be part of the Photonic Integration group (phi.ele.tue.nl) of the Electrical Engineering department of Eindhoven University of Technology. This is a collaborative project with Microsoft research Cambridge (UK).

PhD in optical networks for the cloud at University College London

The successful candidate will be part of the Optical Networks Group, Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering. Applicants (UK/EU only) should be outstanding academically. This is a collaborative project with Microsoft research Cambridge (UK).

Optics for the Cloud Microsoft Research Cambridge Internship

Internship Opportunity

Microsoft Research is looking for highly motivated PhD students with experience in optics to join us in an exciting project involving Holography and Head Mounted Displays. The project involves solving a range of practical challenges of modern HMD displays with its core being a holographic projection system. Search “holograms: the future of near-eye display” for more information.


Group Members

Interns, Visitors, and Collaborators

  • Portrait of Dan Blumenthal

    Dan Blumenthal

    Visiting Researcher, Summer 2017


  • Portrait of Kari Clark

    Kari Clark

    Intern, Spring 2016


  • Portrait of Chris Dainty

    Chris Dainty


  • Portrait of Adam Funnell

    Adam Funnell

    Intern, Summer 2016


  • Portrait of Thomas Gerard

    Thomas Gerard

    Intern, Fall 2016


  • Portrait of Hussein Kassir

    Hussein Kassir

    Intern, Summer '15

    École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

  • Portrait of Qi Li

    Qi Li

    Intern, Summer 2015

    Columbia University

  • Portrait of Alana  Marzoev

    Alana Marzoev

    Intern, Summer 2018

  • Portrait of Jayashree  Mohan

    Jayashree Mohan

    Intern, Summer 2018

  • Portrait of Theofilos Petsios

    Theofilos Petsios

    Intern, Fall 2017

    Columbia University

  • Portrait of Nadesh  Ramanathan

    Nadesh Ramanathan

    Intern, Spring 2017

  • Portrait of Philip Watts

    Philip Watts

    Visiting Researcher, Fall 2016


  • Portrait of Aaron Zhao

    Aaron Zhao

    Intern, Summer 2017

    University of Cambridge

Microsoft Azure

  • Portrait of Jeff Cox

    Jeff Cox

    Partner Dir Software Eng


  • Portrait of Jamie Gaudette

    Jamie Gaudette

    Principal Network Eng Manager


  • Portrait of Dave Maltz

    Dave Maltz

    Partner Group Software Engineering Manager


The rapid expansion of cloud computing, and its corresponding data volumes, is driving demand for new approaches to storage for all tiers, from Hot (high frequency access at low latency) to Standard and Cool (normal frequency access with tens of milliseconds latency), to Cold (archival, infrequent access, and latency up to hours). Historically this demand was met by advances in the achieved information storage density of the magnetic material. However, storage density is now very close to the fundamental physical limits imposed by the size of the magnetic domains that can be manipulated and successfully read.

Our research is investigating new optics-based approaches to storage that provide properties that are better than or equal to today’s technology, and that provide greatly extended data lifetimes and reduce the cost per byte.

Project Silica

Project Silica

Project Silica, a collaboration with the University of Southampton is a ground-breaking cloud storage system that uses femto lasers to write data on to quartz glass which, due to its durable properties, provides long-lasting, easily-readable storage. It was featured in Mark Russinovich’s Ignite talk below.

In September 2017, Mark Russinovich, CTO of Azure, announced a number of new collaborations with MSR Cambridge including Project Silica. See Mark present the impressive early results (watch from 1:01:13 – 1:03:18).


A reliable, high-performing, self-managed, and low-cost network is a critical part of the cloud infrastructure. Our research aims to re-invent the network that will underpin the cloud in year 2025 and will meet these key properties, via emerging optical technologies. Capacity and speed requirements are expected to increase at the same time as existing networks become hard to scale efficiently. This, in turn, motivates our search for new optical network technologies with new growth curves that can match the requirements of future workloads. These technologies include new transceivers, new switching systems, new kinds of optical fibers, and other emerging approaches.

Project Iris

Project Iris

Project Iris explores novel designs of regional and Wide Area (WAN) cloud networks from the ground-up.

Project Sirius

Project Sirius

Project Sirius aims to develop an all-optical, data-center-wide network that is completely flat, in contrast to the hierarchy of electrical switches used today.

Talks and Events


Hitesh Ballani on “Optics for the Cloud: Opportunities and Challenges” at OSA Advanced Photonics Congress (July 2018), Microsoft Faculty Summit (August 2018), and ECOC (September 2018).

Ant Rowstron on “Rethinking Data Storage for the Zettabyte Cloud Era: The Journey from Metal to Glass” at OSA Advanced Photonics Congress, July 2018.

Ioan Stefanovici on “Glass: A New Media for a New Era?” at Usenix HotStorage, July 2018.

Ariel Gomez Diaz on “Optics for the Cloud” at Downing College, May 2018.

Paolo Costa on “Bridging the Last Mile for Optical Switching in Data Centers” at Photonics West (January 2018) and OFC (March 2018).

Benn Thomsen on “Optics for the cloud: Opportunities for Light” at UCL Optics Summit, June 2017.

Benn Thomsen on “Challenges and opportunities for photonics in the cloud” at University of Southampton, Future Photonics Hub Industry Day, September 2018.

Austin Donnelly on “How would you store a Zetta-Byte of Cold Data?” at vETC, June 2018.


September 23, 2018 | Benn Thomsen workshop at ECOC 2018 WS05 Data Centres – 1, Session 1: “Has the time come for coherent optics in the data centres?

September 23, 2018 | Benn Thomsen workshop at ECOC 2018 WS12 Data Centres – 2, Session 2: “Optical technologies for distributed edge and exascale core data centres?

November 1, 2018 | Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Paolo Costa, Ariel Gomez Diaz session at Future Decoded 2018Microsoft Optics for the Cloud – Rethinking Data Centre Technology

March 3, 2019 | Paolo Costa workshop at OFC 2019  “Opportunities and Challenges for Optical Switching in the Data Center

March 26, 2019 | Austin Donnelly at Tech Storm 2019 “Glass:A New Media for a New Era”