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.
John Teale, a Distinguished Engineer at IBM and director of the Tape Technology Laboratory, in Tucson, Ariz., agreed. “Customers might appreciate doubling the capacity of their tape, but they dont want to do it at the cost of doubling the price. Its doable, but, in reality, it comes at a cost and at a technical risk,” Teale said.
Even if tapes are made thinner, double-sided or both, reading and writing data on tape is another challenge entirely. Teales team is working on a drive read/write head that adjusts its sensitivity every time a tape is inserted, a process known as adaptive equalization. “Were talking two to three years for this type of capability in an actual product. This will have a negligible cost impact,” he said.
Tapes of the future will also be cleaner, resulting in less data corruption. High capacities mean read/write heads touch the media more frequently, which causes chemical and metal coatings to wear out more quickly and debris to build up. For a robotic library with dozens of slots, that debris can combine with ordinary dust and get into mechanical parts, causing performance degradation or failure.
“The ability to manage data on tape is a major issue. The problem gets worse every year because the tape gets thinner,” said Jim Wolf, chief architect at Storage Technology Corp.s tape development group.
Cartridges using the high-end advanced intelligent tape format address debris today with sensor-based self-cleaning. “The monitoring function looks at the performance of the drive and determines whether the drive needs cleaning,” based on error rates, Wolf said. As capacities increase, “Were talking about separations of 20 nm. Im not sure what kind of sensor youd get to manage that,” said Wolf, in Louisville, Colo.
Helping keep media aligned could help. “One of the other things were working on [is] different guiding systems. As the tape gets thinner, were going to have to provide softer guiding,” Wolf said.
The tape of the future will also be more secure. Many formats today have built-in microchips for holding metadata, but encryption software could be put in, too, said Hiro Kajiro, director of engineering, tape storage solutions at Sony Electronics Inc., in San Jose, Calif.
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