IBM/Fujifilm prototype tape hits 154TB capacity

Just weeks ago, Sony announced a lab demo of a 185TB tape. This demo uses technology similar to today's tape, but is more refined. Will tape win back some ground lost to disks?

Magnetic tape is less than a century old and, for a while in the 1950s, it was the main mass storage for computers. Hulking tape drives dominated early computer rooms — especially in Hollywood movies — and were finicky combinations of electronic, mechanical, and pneumatic parts.

By the early 60s, faster and only slightly less finicky disk drives replaced tape as primary storage. Despite many predictions of tape's demise, it's still here.

Fujifilm and IBM

The underlying technical improvements behind this demo are interesting:

  • New high-density, dual-coated particulate magnetic tape. A new ultra-fine, perpendicularly oriented barium-ferrite magnetic medium without costly sputtering or evaporation coating
  • Enhanced write field head technology. IBM Research-Zurich, with help from IBM San Jose, developed a new write head with much stronger magnetic fields that works with smaller volume magnetic particles adding increased coercivity necessary for long-term stability.
  • Advanced nano-scale head positioning. The 27-fold track increase over the LTO6 format requires a new low noise tape transport system, an improved servo pattern and method for detecting position information at nano-scale resolution, and a new track follow controller. They achieved a track-follow performance with a standard deviation of only 10.3 nanometers.
  • A new signal processing data channel that enables the reliable detection of data at a linear density of 600,000 bits per inch with a 90nm wide GMR read head. All this AND the same user bit error rate as the latest IBM enterprise tape drives

10.3nm? That's smaller than today's chip feature sizes! Here's how the tape roadmap compares to other media:

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 9.53.22 PM
Graph courtesy IBM


The Storage Bits take

The IBM/Fujifilm team thinks they can keep doubling tape density every two years for the next decade. That's faster density growth than disks will achieve, which will nudge the economic advantage back towards tape.

Tape's Achilles heel is, of course, access time. It works for rarely accessed data — archives — but its glory days of the 1950s, where it was primary storage, will never return.

But this demo — and Sony's — shows there is still life in the old technology yet. Predictions of tape's demise are, once again, premature.

Comments welcome. Do you use tape? Please tell us how and why.

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