Tape Backups Dead?

Photo: IBM Research

With a recent breakthrough thanks to IBM and Sony, tape backups may still hold superior in large data storage. Storage media is ever increasing in storage size. Seagate announced their 60 terabyte solid state disk last year which is currently the largest disk in the world.

IBM and Sony collectively developed a new type of tape. The newly developed tape is reported to be capable of holding roughly 25GB of data per square inch. That may not seem like much, but when you fill a cartridge with a kilometer of this tape, you’ll get roughly 330TB of data storage. The largest commercially available tapes only store 15TB.

Read/write performance for this device wouldn’t be anywhere near the performance of a typical spinning hard drive. However, when you’re needing to just store data for archiving purposes only for an extensive period of time, this may be the most cost effect way to do so.

Unlike the platters in computer hard drives that feature ultra-thin layers of various metals to store tiny magnetic charges, tape needs to be able to flex, bend, and be wound onto a spool. As a result, it’s usually covered in a thin layer of iron oxide or chromium particles which are magnetized or de-magnetized by a machine to create individual bits of data.

As a paper recently published in IEEE Transactions on Magnetics revealsthe team at Sony developed a new type of magnetic layer that’s applied to the tape using a technique called sputter deposition, which uses a vapor instead of a liquid to lay down tiny magnetic particles that are just a few nanometers in size. Older techniques of creating magnetic tape produced particles that could be hundreds of nanometers in size, but the smaller you can make those particles, the more of them can be squeezed into a given space, allowing you to store more data.

Sony also developed a new type of lubrication for the magnetic tape. Usually, a tape’s magnetic layer is applied in liquid form which is one of the reasons that magnetic tape is so cheap and easy to produce in huge quantities. Sony has instead used sputter deposition, a technique that has been used by the semiconductor and hard drive industries for decades to lay down thin films. The new lubrication layer makes sure that the tape comes out of the cartridge and through the machine extremely smoothly. Some of the biggest difficulties of tape recording and playback are managing friction and air resistance, which causes wear and tear and chaotic movements. When you’re trying to read a magnetic strip that is just 7nm across, with the tape running at almost 10 meters per second, even the smallest of movements can be a big problem.

IBM’s researchers developed a new read head just 48-nanometers in size that was capable of accurately reading the minuscule magnetic particles on Sony’s new tape, as well as new servo technology allowing for precise control of the tape as it flows through the machine. Accuracy and precision have to be improved as the magnetic particles holding the data get smaller and smaller.

This technology is still in it’s R&D phase so it can still be a few years before it’s commercially available. Below you can watch the video from IBM talking about this new technology.