Bulletin: Tape Is Alive and Well at IBM

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Still the leading industry technology for archiving data, magnetic tape gets a boost from researchers in Switzerland and Japan, who say it's much greener than disk.

 

If you are one of those people who has resisted the move to back up everything to disk because you just like knowing you have a tape offsite that has all the company's data going back to the Vietnam War, then take heart; you have just been given a new lease on life with a breakthrough in tape technology.

 

Working with Fujifilm, IBM researchers have figured out how to put yet more data on less space—about 40 times more data—than is possible with today's most advanced tape formats. Great, you say, now we will be able to cram 40 times more data onto one tape, which will mean we won't have to change tapes as often. Theoretically, that's true, but in reality your company is likely on course to produce 50 times more data in the next 10 years than it did during the first decade of this millennium. Socking away all the data from those RFID tags you haven't yet started using, converting speech to text from meetings and videos, and employing video communications online will all contribute to the future storage glut. And what better way to archive it than on tape? And here's the kicker: tape is a much greener technology than disk.

 

Stop groaning and think about it. You have a disk whirring around constantly that is using electricity whether you are writing anything to it or not. Hello…isn't this adding to your carbon footprint? And what is that little tape cartridge doing over there stacked in your library? Nothing; it's just sitting there and thankfully not burning up any dinosaurs…or whatever oil is made from. (So Johnny, where does milk come from? A bottle. And where does oil come from? The ground.) And remember, you're in IT, so you're supposed to be good at conserving company resources. On a per-gigabyte basis, tape systems today cost only 10 to 20 percent of that of a hard-disk-drive storage system. So if you think tape is going to go away any time soon, in the words of The Sopranos' favorite hero, fuhgeddaboudit!

 

They say the Model T Ford was not so much a brilliant idea as a convergence of technologies, and today's breakthrough in tape storage is similar. There is actually a lot of science behind storing 35 terabytes (35 trillion bytes) onto one tape cartridge. You think you can store a lot of books on your new Kindle? Well, 35 TB is enough storage to sock away about 35 million romance novels.

 

The key number here is 29.5 billion. That's the number of bits per square inch of tape that scientists at IBM Research-Zurich have managed to store on Fujifilm's next-generation, dual-coated, high-density, barium-ferrite nanocubic magnetic tape. The folks in Zurich aren't done yet, either. The goal is to get to 100 billion bits per square inch.

 

How did they do it? Details, details! Ladies and gentlemen, let's just say it's all in the tape head—more or less. You take a half-inch-wide tape. Now you lay on multiple tracks of data. Then you reduce the width of those tracks to less than 0.45 micrometers. This results in a 25-fold increase in the number of data tracks you can lay down on the tape. Specifically, the results come from the following:

 

  • New tape head servo control technologies involving advanced servo patterns and methods for detecting and decoding position information, as well as new control concepts
  • An advanced data-read channel that can handle a reduced signal-to-noise ratio coming from a super narrow (0.2um) data reader head
  • Low-friction read-write head assemblies that allow for smoother magnetic tapes, along with an advanced giant magnetoresistive (GMR) head module with new servo readers, both head technologies developed by scientists at IBM Research-Almaden

 

IBM Fellow Evangelos Eleftheriou notes that these new technologies are important in developing ways to store all the data that will be created over the next few decades. "This tape storage density demonstration represents a step towards developing technologies to achieve tape areal recording densities of 100 billion bits per square inch and beyond. Such technologies will be necessary to keep up with the rapid increase in digital information."

 

Cindy Grossman, vice president of IBM's Tape and Archive Storage Systems, couldn't be more pleased with the latest breakthrough. "This exciting achievement shows that tape storage is alive and strong and will continue to provide users reliable data protection, while maintaining a cost advantage over other storage technologies, including hard disk drives and flash," she said.

 

So there you have it. Tape technology is "alive and strong" according to IBM, which produced its first commercial tape product more than 60 years ago—the 726 Magnetic Tape Unit. Each half-inch reel back then held about 2 megabytes. Today's achievement represents a potential increase in capacity of some 17.5 million times the original tape drive.

 

But if you're poised to purchase a new IBM LTO Generation 4 setup, don't stop payment on the check. It will be some time before the new technology finds its way into production.

 

 

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