Big Blue Takes Tape Density to New Heights

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Determined to keep tape rolling in the red-hot storage market, IBM says its engineers have hit a new record in data density on linear magnetic tape.

Researchers at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., packed data onto a test tape at a density of 6.67 billion bits per square inch.

The compression, achieved with the help of new magnetic tape from Fuji Photo Film Co., is more than 15 times the data density of magnetic tape products from IBM, Sun Microsystems and other tape system makers.

Bruce Master, senior program manager of worldwide tape storage systems at IBM, said that if products using IBM’s new data recording technology and Fuji’s tape hit the market in five years as expected, a standard Linear Tape Open (LTO) tape cartridge could hold 8 trillion bytes of uncompressed data.

For some perspective, this is 20 times the capacity of today’s LTO Generation 3 cartridge, which is about half the size of a VHS videocassette, and is equivalent to the text in 8 million books.

The new mark shatters the compression rate IBM established in 2002 by recording a terabyte of data onto one LTO cartridge at 1 billion bits per square inch.

Corporations employ tape to sock away large volumes of data that are used infrequently or don’t need speedy access times. Tape is frequently used in data archives, backup files and data replication, and is considered one of the tools to help enterprises meet federal compliance rules.

Tape has been replaced in some cases in favor of faster disk-based methods of storing data.

Some disk users have also argued that tape breaks and is less reliable than disk storage. Recent lost tape cartridges haven’t endeared users to the classic medium either.

Master called the notion that tape is a unreliable a “myth,” and noted that tape failures occur because of operational errors, such as a staffer putting the wrong tape in, or running a job at the wrong time.

While scores of storage vendors line up to proclaim disk storage as the medium of choice to keep data for specific lengths of time, tape has always been acknowledged as being less expensive.

Master noted that, on a per-gigabyte basis, tape systems are about one-fifth to one-tenth the cost of hard-disk-drive storage systems. Also, since cartridges that aren’t being accessed consume no energy — unlike spinning disks — tape systems have much lower cost of ownership.

Again, it depends on who you talk to. With the cost of disk storage dropping, some vendors and customers say they have been hard pressed to justify using tape in an increasingly digital world that requires speedier data transfer.

IBM’s latest announcement shows that it isn’t buying into the talk about disk-based storage being superior to tape-based storage.

Master noted that IBM sells disk and tape as part of a broader storage portfolio for helping to match the right storage medium with individual needs.

“Tape has longevity for the foreseeable future and can maintain a very competitive and attractive total cost of ownership,” Master said. “The value points of using tape are that it’s portable, removable and has infinite capacity.”

IBM was the 2005 revenue leader in the $4.82 billion worldwide branded tape drive and tape library automation market, IDC said.

Master said the density breakthrough comes after Almaden researchers spent the last two years worked with Fuji Photo Film Co. engineers to create a new dual-coat tape media that makes high-density recording possible.

The Almaden researchers also improved the read-write head and the methods for positioning the head and handling the tape to enable data tracks one-tenth as wide as in current products.

Moreover, scientists from IBM’s Zurich research lab created a new coding method that improved the accuracy of reading the tiny magnetic bits.

Article courtesy of

Clint Boulton
Clint Boulton
Clint Boulton is an Enterprise Storage Forum contributor and a senior writer for covering IT leadership, the CIO role, and digital transformation.

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