For many people, tape memory is a dead technology found only on reel-to-reel computers in old 1960s movies. However, it’s still a major storage medium and a new breakthrough by IBM Research and Fuji Film has produced a low-cost particulate magnetic tape with a record density of 123 billion bits of uncompressed data per square inch, which represents 88 times more capacity than 2012's LTO-6 tape cartridge.
When the first half-inch-wide computer tape was invented in 1952, it had about 2 megabytes per reel of storage. Previously, the main storage medium was punch cards, but the development of electronic computers produced machines that soon operated at the limits of the speed of punch card systems.
Plastic tape seemed a viable alternative, but even in the 1950s, the speed that tapes had to run was more than the plastic could handle without stretching or tearing, so elaborate mechanical buffers, vacuum columns, and magnetic readers were developed so the tapes could run back and forth quickly without putting too much strain on the plastic.
Over the years, hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and solid state memory came along, but tape is still very much a mainstream technology used in backups, disaster replicas, video, archiving and other renditions, with over 500 exabytes of data currently on tape.
The new IBM tape has an areal density 110,000,000 times greater than IBM’s first tape drive, which could result in a hand-sized tape cartridge that holds the equivalent of 220 terabytes of data. IBM compares this to 220 million books that would need 2,200 km (1,367 mi) of bookshelf.
The new tape is the result of 13 years of work on a high-density barium ferrite tape combined with new control technology for read-write heads involving advanced servo control technologies, a high bandwidth head actuator, and a set of tape-speed, optimized, H-infinity, track-follow controllers that place the head within 6 nanometers; allowing a track density of 181,300 tracks per inch. This new recording medium combined with noise-predictive detection technology makes possible an ultra-narrow 90 nm-wide Giant MagnetoResistive (GMR) reader.
IBM sees the new tape technology as having applications in big data and cloud computing at a cost of pennies per gigabyte. One example of this is the company’s OpenStack Swift, which lets users inexpensively migrate cold data to a highly durable cloud based storage tier.
A research prototype of the new tape drive is on display at the 2015 National Association Broadcasters Show.
The video below discusses the new IBM storage tape.