Tale of the Tape

Tape storage systems getting smarter, easier to manage.

John Lentz, manager of computer operations at Boston Universitys Office of Information Technology, regularly backs up 250GB of data from 300 academic departments. "I like tape," said Lentz, in Boston. "I want something that I can take and put off-site."

But Lentz, like most storage administrators, said the need for more capacity and easy management is an ongoing concern.

Help may be on the way. Tape vendors are starting to take a page from disk array manufacturers playbook. Although disk-based storage solutions continue to get cheaper and more reliable, tape development has increased, and like disk technologies, tapes are becoming smarter and easier to administer.

By the end of the decade, tapes will be thinner and double-sided, and users will find less corruption in the restore process, thanks to dynamic head recalibration, research engineers say. Tapes will also be physically cleaner and even run their own software.

For instance, it took 18 hours to write 1 terabyte of data for IBMs tape project a year ago; it takes half that time today, with a 2-hour feat on the horizon. In addition, capacity will increase by making the media physically thinner, thus fitting more into existing cartridges.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa are trying to build media using 60-nanometer iron particles, instead of the current 100-nm size. "There have been some remarkable experimental results," said spokesman Bill Doyle, at the schools Center for Materials for Information Technology.

A more drastic solution, to make tapes doubled-sided, is in early development. Researchers are challenged by the thickness, reliability and winding characteristics of tape. "We have not given up," said Peter Groel, president of Mountain Engineering II Inc., in Longmont, Colo. Still, "its going to be a little bit further out, maybe three years," Groel said.