Tape Turns 50

New approaches such as double-sided tape promise to keep technology going.

Fifty years ago this month, IBM and 3M Corp. unveiled the first magnetic data tape, which used a 12-inch movie reel and stored about 1.4MB, the equal of a 3.5-inch floppy disk.

With the advent of disks, many have written about the inevitable demise of tape storage. But today, when high-end tape holds about 100GB, tape still has advantages over disks, including portability and shelf life. And those attributes are safe, as refrigerator-size disk units arent getting smaller and their media wears out over time.

That is why vendors continue investing in tape products and why industry observers say they believe the technology will stay around—if not for another 50 years, then maybe a decade or two. "I dont think tape is close to going away by any means," said Fara Yale, an analyst with Gartner Dataquest, in San Jose, Calif.

Most tape research targets capacity and functionality, the areas where disk research is catching up. Leading the tape research effort are companies such as IBM, Imation Corp., Fuji Photo Film U.S.A. Inc., Network Appliance Inc. and Storage Technology Corp.; groups such as the National Storage Industry Consortium and the nonprofit Tape Head Interface Committee Inc.; and various universities.

In capacity, there are two prospects for radical growth. The more popular one is a 1-terabyte cartridge, already achieved earlier this year by IBMs Almaden (Calif.) Research Center, using Fujis Nano Cubic, ultra-thin-layer coating technology. The technology will likely be in products in three to five years, according to officials with both companies, based on advances in tape density, reel packing and air-pocket elimination, spin speeds, and precision adjustments of servo tracks and read/write heads.

A less researched but potentially more significant prospect is a double-sided tape. But its not as easy to build as an audiocassette, said Peter Groel, president of drive maker Mountain Engineering II Inc., in Longmont, Colo. MEII is developing a drive to read such tapes, but tapes are currently too thick, at 20 to 30 micrometers. They need to become far thinner, perhaps less than 1 micrometer, and electrostatic issues need to be considered, Groel said. Another problem is that such thin tape could stick to itself when it winds up, said Barry Schechtman, executive director emeritus of the NSIC, in San Diego.

Similar work is being done elsewhere. Engineers at Quantum Corp., of Milpitas, Calif., put metadata and control track information—but not actual data—on the back side of storage tapes. University of Alabama chemistry experts in Tuscaloosa are working on plastic, film-based tape thats five times thinner than todays standards. IBMs Almaden team considered double-sided tapes with a separate middle layer to insulate each sides data from the other, engineer Jim Eaton said.

Other corporate and academic research focuses on functionality. Rather than moving a tape from its starting point each time data is queried, many tapes today have their midpoint as the default starting point, so no datas more than half the tape away at all times, said Fujis Mike McCorkle, national technical support manager, in Elmsford, N.Y. Tape sectoring could also be useful in several years. Today, most tapes have one or two sectors, but they could theoretically have 256 sectors, McCorkle said. Another possibility, already under way at some companies, is to build tapes with embedded radio frequency chips that communicate header information to drives. Doing so would offload that data from the tape itself, creating more space, McCorkle said.

The use of WORM (write-once/read-many) technology can also make tapes more functional by ensuring data safety, Gartners Yale said. "We have some products coming out with WORM technology" this year, from companies such as Storage Technology—better known as StorageTek, of Louisville, Colo.—and Sony Corp., of Tokyo, Yale said. "It prevents you from writing over data thats already written," though all of these new features will be useful as tapes enter more vertical markets like digital asset management, paper/microfiche replacements and life sciences, Yale said.

Before such complicated technologies are marketed, vendors should put more money into controlling the quality of their current products, said Casey Feskens, system administrator at Willamette University, in Salem, Ore. "You get a lot of write errors, read errors on tapes," said Feskens, who uses StorageTek technology to store 2 terabytes of data.

Willamette has used tape storage for about 10 years. Occasional data transfer errors have lost some professors data forever. But other than the rare catastrophic failure, "as long as tapes going to have a form factor smaller than a hard drive and be easier to store, thats probably going to be something that makes it useful," Feskens said.