Storing data on magnetic tape might seem more antique than cutting edge, but with more data in the world than ever, it could still be one of the most energy efficient and secure storage methods we have. Now, Sony and IBM Research have teamed up to break the areal density record for the medium, cramming 201 billion bits of uncompressed data into each square inch of tape.

IBM has a history of breaking these world records, claiming five of them since 2006, and the newest record comes thanks to a new magnetic tape technology developed by Sony Storage Media Solutions. The last few generations have been built with magnetic particles of barrium ferrite, but the new system is made up of several thin layers of metal film that are coated onto the tape through a process known as sputter deposition.

Sputtered media gives the magnetic layer an average grain size of 7 nm, allowing more particles to be crammed in closer together. This is combined with a few other new tricks Sony has developed, including a processing technique that reduces impurities, and a lubricant that reduces friction between the magnetic head and the tape surface to speed up reading and writing.

On the other side of the equation, IBM was responsible for developing magnetic heads that work with the lower-friction tape, advanced servo control technologies that can accurately position the heads over the tiny dots, and algorithms that can process the signals more precisely.

A cross-section of the new tape's structure (Credit: Sony)

Altogether, the collaboration resulted in a tape prototype with a recording areal density of 201 Gb/in2, which the companies claim is 20 times the capacity of current systems. Scaled to a useable device, that means 330 TB of data could fit onto a palm-sized cartridge, which is a big leap above the 15 TB cartridges currently available.

Widely used for over 60 years, advances like these allow magnetic tape to remain a viable option in our current age of Big Data and cloud computing, thanks to its high capacity, low cost, low power consumption and longevity.

"Tape has traditionally been used for video archives, back-up files, replicas for disaster recovery and retention of information on premise, but the industry is also expanding to off-premise applications in the cloud," says IBM Fellow Evangelos Eleftheriou. "While sputtered tape is expected to cost a little more to manufacture than current commercial tape that uses barium ferrite, the potential for very high capacity will make the cost per TB very attractive, making this technology practical for cold storage in the cloud."

The developers of the technology are presenting the prototype at the 28th Magnetic Recording Conference this week. The team discusses the advances in the video below.

Sources: Sony, IBM

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