IBM, Fuji Report Quantum Leap in Tape Storage

Tape storage may soon be in for a big comeback as an IBM demo boosted tape storage capacity to 15 times today's data density.

Since most large and small businesses use spinning disks to store most of their data, the idea of employing linear magnetic tape machines for vital storage seems like a throwback to an age gone by.

However, enterprise magnetic tape storage is far from obsolete; in fact, it might be about to enjoy a quantum leap forward in performance.

In a demonstration during the week of May 15 at IBMs Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. a record amount of data was stuffed onto a test tape developed by Fuji Photo Film of Japan at a density of 6.67 billion bits per square inch.

This is more than 15 times the data density of todays industry standard magnetic tape products, IBM spokesman Mike Ross said.

"Were kind of in a similar spot with magnetic tape storage as we were in the 90s with disk drives," Ross told eWEEK. "When the breakthrough came in [gigabyte] capacity, disk drive sales really took off and prices came down."

Thanks to this newly improved tape media, a cartridge smaller than a typical VHS cassette will be able to hold the text from 8 million books—books that if lined up, would fill 92 kilometers (57 miles) worth of bookshelves, IBM said.

IBMs demo this week easily beat its own previous record for data stored per square inch. In 2002, Big Blue recorded a terabyte of data onto a single 3592-sized cartridge at a density of 1 billion bits per square inch.

During the past two years, Almaden RC researchers worked closely with Fuji engineers on the development of a new dual-coat magnetic tape media capable of high-density recording.

The IBM researchers also developed methods to improve the capabilities of read-write heads and the methods for positioning the heads and handling the tape to enable data tracks one-tenth as wide as in current products.

Finally, scientists from IBMs Zurich Research Laboratory developed a new coding method that improved the accuracy of reading the tiny magnetic bits.

"This is really going to improve magnetic tape storage for years to come," Ross said. "The field of magnetic tape, which a lot of people thought was stodgy and old, isnt withering at all."

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IBMs achievement was due to improvements in five areas of the magnetic tape system, the company said:

New high-density dual-coated particulate magnetic tape. This next-generation version of its NANOCUBIC tape uses a new barium-ferrite magnetic media that enables high-density data recording without using expensive metal sputtering or evaporation coating methods.

More sensitive read-write head. For the first time, magnetic tape technology employs the sensitive GMR (giant-magnetoresistive) head materials and structures used to sense very small magnetic fields in hard disk drives.

GMR servo reader. New GMR servo-reading elements, software and fast-and-precise positioning devices provides an active feedback system with 0.35-micron accuracy in monitoring and positioning the read-write head over the 1.5-micron-wide residual data track.

Improved tape-handling features. Flangeless, grooved rollers permit smoother high-speed passage of the tape, which also enhances the ability of the head to write and read high-density data.

Innovative signal-processing algorithms for the read data channel. An advanced read channel used new NPML (noise-predictive, maximum-likelihood) software developed at IBMs Zurich Research Laboratory to process the captured data faster and more accurately than would have been possible with existing methods.

The IBM announcement "reinforces IBMs commitment to tape and demonstrates that IBM intends to continue its long-term development of tape, and it clearly shows that tape will continue to grow in capacity and remain a competitive storage technology for many years to come," Gartner Group storage analyst Fara Yale in Stamford, Conn., told eWEEK.

"Eight terabytes on a single cartridge is truly amazing," she added.

David Reine, director of The Clipper Group in Wellesley, Mass., agreed that tape storage is not going to be obsolete any time soon.

"With the cost of energy going through the roof, the cost to preserve data long term on spinning media is simply too high," Reine wrote eWEEK via email.

"The acquisition costs of tape are less expensive to begin with. Combined with the TCO issues related to operations and administration, tape is the best bang for the buck for archiving and adherence to government regulation (i.e. Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, etc.)."

Charles King of Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif., said that "theres nothing out there as cheap and well-established as tape storage/backup. This news is a great example that shows innovation is still happening at IBM and elsewhere.

"Tape array machines are incredible; they run all day long, they stop and start, fast-forward and reverse all day, and they stop on a dime. Theyre amazing machines."

IBM first introduced its first magnetic tape, in reel-to-reel form, in May 1952, Ross said.

IBM estimates that the new technology and tapes should be on the market in five years.

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Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...