Hits of the 50s

IBM and Sony Reveal Mega Magnetic Tape Storage

People are creating more data than ever before. Estimates suggest that 90 percent of the world’s digital data was created during the past two years. This data explosion requires new, cost-efficient ways to store and backup. It’s an ongoing struggle.

Computer scientists at IBM and Sony’s division for data storage have partnered to develop a technology that enables up to 330TB of storage inside a small cartridge that fits in the palm of a hand. To put this figure into perspective, this is 330,000GB or roughly the equivalent of 330 million books.

The announcement was made last week at the 2017 IEEE Magnetic Recording Conference, held at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan.

Magnetic data tapes were developed in the 1950s and have continued to evolve. Although it’s generally considered a technology from a past century, in reality it remains the dominant method for storing cold data — information that’s infrequently accessed, but must be maintained. For example, tax documents and healthcare records are often stored on tape.

The big data era has actually driven a resurgence in tape. The medium is valued for its ability to store not only backup and archival data, but also the massive sensor and transactional data streams going up to the cloud.

Against the backdrop of hacking attacks and ransomware, the importance of data storage is being reaffirmed, particularly in terms of ensuring reliable recovery of data in information systems such as databases and servers, as well as safe management of information.

Magnetic tape shows great potential as a storage technology, thanks to its relative strengths, which include its capacity for storing data over long periods of time, low power consumption, low cost, and space saving capabilities. Tape never really died.

Sony, together with IBM, created a new type of higher-density tape, and IBM Research developed new heads and signal processing technologies to read the compactly stored data.

Although the demonstration at the conference was a prototype, IBM suggested that a commercial product could arrive in 2018. Sony and IBM are likely to build on this momentum and introduce a next-generation storage media using their new technology. This won’t be found in phones or computers, but as our digital lives always need an archive, it could be time to hit the tape.