At The 28th Magnetic Recording Conference (TMRC) this year in Tsukuba, Japan, IBM and Sony debuted a new way to store digital data that has set a world record for recording density. Using a Sony sputtered aluminized tape and an IBM reading mechanism, the new cartridges can hold 330TB of uncompressed data in a slim, four-inch case that fits in the palm of your hand.
In the photo above, IBM scientist Mark Lantz holds a one-square-inch piece of Sony Storage Media Solutions sputtered tape, which can hold 201 gigabits, a new world record. (Photo credit: IBM Research)
If you thought tape as a storage medium had been eclipsed by technologies like the cloud, you’re both right and wrong. Of the big three cloud services—Amazon, Google, and Microsoft—two still rely on magnetic tape for long-term storage. Magnetic-tape storage might be 66 years old, reaching back to the Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC 1 in 1951, but it still has a place as an additional, durable, and cost-effective option. It does seem strange, though, that a company such as IBM, which recently announced success in storing data on a single atom, would now be co-owners of the world record for storage density on tape.
The aluminized tape in the cartridge is special in a number of ways. There’s a lubricant layer that allows the tape to run at faster speeds, and the method used for layering the metal coating involves sputtering, a way of spraying in layers to increase the depth of the recording layer. The backing layer is 1 mil of CM polyimide film, and the sputtered aluminized coating is only 0.004 mil thick. Combined, the layers create a record 201 gigabits of storage potential per square inch, which is the equivalent of 25.13GB (gigabytes). If that’s a little vague, here’s how IBM described its capacity in the press release:
“This new record areal recording density is more than 20 times the areal density used in current state of-the-art commercial tape drives such as the IBM TS1155 enterprise tape drive, and it enables the potential to record up to about 330 terabytes (TB) of uncompressed data on a single tape cartridge. 330 terabytes of data are comparable to the text of 330 million books, which would fill a bookshelf that stretches slightly beyond the northeastern to the southwestern most tips of Japan.”
IBM Scientist Mark Lantz added another surprising speculation: “There’s the potential to continue scaling the tape technology basically at historical rates of doubling the cartridge capacity every two years for at least the next 10 years.” Sounds almost like a new Moore’s Law for data storage on tape.
Lantz seems confident that the almost 70-year-old technology has a future. He explains, “Cloud is really one of the growing use cases of tape technology both as a kind of backup application to preserve data that’s stored on other technologies in the cloud, but also as an archival tier for cold data which is not very frequently accessed.”
Today’s commercial tape cartridges max out at 15TB, which is less than the theoretical amount enabled by IBM’s 2010 breakthrough, according to this overview.
As accustomed as we are to the turnover of our tech hardware, there is some stability here. In the announcement of the sputtered tape cartridges, IBM points to several important qualities of tape storage. It’s currently the most secure, energy-efficient, and cost-effective solution for storing massive amounts of data, backups, and archival information.
And when you think about it, we have other memory devices that have locked themselves into almost permanent positions. We’ve been carrying around ballpoint pens and pencils since 1888 and 1564, respectively. And that QWERTY design for our keyboards was designed by Christopher Latham Sholes 149 years ago. If Sony and IBM can maintain that biennial capacity-doubling curve they’re on now, who knows how long tape cartridges will last.