Will Tape Storage Make A Comeback? IBM Demonstrates Record-Breaking Capacity

IBM Tape Technology

IBM, from its labs in Zurich, Switzerland, announced that its scientists, in collaboration with Japan-based Fujifilms have been able to demonstrate a 29 times increase in the storage capacity of its current data tape cartridge. From the previous best of 20 TB, the capacity has increased to 580 TB. This is 32-times the capacity LTO-Ultrium (Linear Tape-Open version 9), which currently holds the distinction of being the latest industry-standard in the magnetic tape products.

Increased Storage Capacity Of Tape

Explaining this achievement, IBM’s official blog said, “580 TB is equivalent to 786,977 CDs stacked 944 meters high, which is taller than Burj Kalifa, the world’s tallest building. That’s a colossal amount of data! All fitting on a tape cartridge on the palm of your hand.”

From the last 15 years, IBM and Fujifilm have been working together to push the capabilities of tape technology and have broken six records over the years. It all started in 2006 when IBM and Fujifilm achieved up to 8 TB native capacity on a single cartridge of the first generation of Barium Ferrite magnetic particles.

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Credit: IBM

For their latest achievement. IBM and Fujifilm have collectively improved three main aspects of tape technology: 

  • A new tape medium, where instead of the traditional barium ferrite particles, Strontium Ferrite (SrFe) particles, invented by Fujifilm, were used in the tape coating. SrFe can be moulded into smaller particles with “superior properties,” with higher density storage on the same amount of tape.
  • A new set of technologies were developed towards this, including a new low friction tape head technology. This technology facilitates the use of smooth tape media and acts as a detector for the reliable and correct detection of data written on the SrFe media.
  • IBM and Fujifilm also developed a family of new servo-mechanical technologies that included a servo pattern which is pre-recorded in the servo tracks, a prototype head actuator, and a set of servo controllers. These new servo technologies broke another record by achieving a record accuracy of 3.2 nm in terms of positioning of the read/write head.

Does Future Belong To ‘Vintage’ Technology

In the age of big data, one may believe that older technologies such as tape storage have gone obsolete with only a few vestiges left. However, if the recent trends are to be believed, it is some time before tape storage can be completely written off.

And now the increased tape storage capacity opens many doors for business, as also noted by IBM in its blog.

The world currently produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. Most of this data resides in the cloud as a data centre. However, considering that the data generated may touch 175 zettabytes by 2025, the tape can prove to be an optimal storage solution, especially in areas such as the Internet of Things, AI-based big data analysis and hyper-scale computing.

Further, tape storage is more economical, along with consuming a lesser amount of energy and power. This is an advantage against hard disk, on which most of the data in the cloud is stored currently. Considering this, cloud providers are also seen gradually introducing tape in their infrastructure. 

Since tape can be physically and logically removed from any electronic connection, it provides for great protection against cyber attacks and ransomware. It creates a physical barrier called the air gap that mitigates sophisticated attacks that could corrupt the data.

Currently, IBM is the only manufacturer of magnetic tape drives, and Fujifilm along with Sony are the only remaining manufacturers of magnetic tape. IBM researchers believe that the magnetic tape industry is expected to grow at 34% per year with areal density growth, against the density growth of HDD, which has grown by just 8% in recent years. Due to this, it is felt that tape would soon replace HDDs for colder storage. 

Magnetic tapes are also used by many enterprises and cloud data centres for long term data archiving.

Interestingly, tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft and institutions such as NASA and British Film Institute (BFI) use tape to securely archive their data.

Shraddha Goled
I am a technology journalist with AIM. I write stories focused on the AI landscape in India and around the world with a special interest in analysing its long term impact on individuals and societies. Reach out to me at shraddha.goled@analyticsindiamag.com.

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