IBM and Fujifilm have demonstrated a technology that, if productized, could give us a 70 TB LTO tape cartridge. Tape isn’t dead – that will be a long time coming – but its vital signs aren’t good, either.

Vacuum column, 800bpi tape drives
Magnetic tape is the oldest digital storage technology still in use. Once mass storage meant tape because drums – and later, disks – were tiny and absurdly expensive.

IBM and Fujifilm demonstrated a density of 29.5 billion bits per square inch on linear tape. Disks are approaching 1 T/bit in a controlled environment and much less media area.

Theoretically this supports a single tape cartridge with a 35 TB of uncompressed data capacity – or 70 TB of compressed data in a single LTO (linear tape open) cartridge.

Current LTO tapes, even with compression, are at about 2 TB per cartridge — the same as high-end disk drives. In nine months those 2 TB disks will cost about the same as single LTO cartridge. Why store data on tape where it is so much slower to access?

Defenders point to tape’s energy efficiency — write once and shelve without consuming more energy for decades — but people like the convenience of random-access data. If this drive industry woke up and started offering archive quality disks — Seagate sold an automotive hard drive that carried a 10 year warranty — much of the remaining tape market would disappear.

Lifespan is another benefit of tape technology. I recently transferred a 20-year-old VHS tape that hadn’t been looked at in at least 10 years to my computer. There was some drop out but the picture was very watchable. Try that with a 20 year old disk drive.

Whether it is commercially feasible or not, the IBM/Fuji technology is impressive:

  • Advanced nano particle technology — they limited the size of the barium ferrite particles to 1600 nm3 — approximately 1/3 of current metal particle volume.
  • Advanced nano coating technology — a smooth and thin magnetic layer with very low variability reduced signal fluctuation significantly, enabling more accurate signal processing.
  • Advanced nano dispersion — a new material controlled agglomeration enabling more uniform dispersion of the nano particles.
  • Nano perpendicular orientation — taking advantage of the barium ferrite particles crystal magnetic anisotropy, a perpendicular orientation improved high-frequency characteristics.

But the remaining obstacles are daunting: mass production of tiny uniform nanoscale particles; mass production of an extremely smooth and thin magnetic layer; and careful control of the particle dispersion and orientation. Plus heads and transports accurate enough to take advantage of the density.

That added technology raises tape’s entry price – further restricting the market – and it isn’t easy to see what, if anything, can reverse that dynamic.

The StorageMojo take
Regardless of whether you think tape has a long-term future, this is an impressive demonstration. When I introduced DLT at DEC, customers were thrilled to get to 2.6 GB on a tape cartridge.

If they can get the cartridge to market in the next 5 years, they’ll can charge 5x what a disk costs – because the capacity is so much higher than any single disk. If they can’t – well, it was a neat tech demo.

Drive marketers should see that a massive archive disk market is fast approaching. Cheap USB 3 SATA drive docks will enable millions to store their memories on rarely used disks – and to rapidly access all the data.

Nevertheless, tape remains the most proven archival storage medium for digital data. Tape may yet live to see that 70 TB cartridge delivered.

Courteous comments welcome, of course. I had an audio cassette recorder for storage on my first computer. Couldn’t afford $800 for a 144 KB floppy disk. I now have 11 disks – and 2 optical drives – on my Mac Pro. That cassette recorder was my 1st – and last – tape drive.