Team sets new record for magnetic tape storage—makes tape competitive for cloud storage

August 3, 2017, IBM
In this photo, IBM scientist Dr. Mark Lantz, holds a one square inch piece of Sony Storage Media Solutions sputtered tape, which can hold 201 Gigabytes, a new world record. Credit: IBM Research

Research scientists have achieved a new world record in tape storage – their fifth since 2006. The new record of 201 Gb/in2 (gigabits per square inch) in areal density was achieved on a prototype sputtered magnetic tape developed by Sony Storage Media Solutions. The scientists presented the achievement today at the 28th Magnetic Recording Conference (TMRC 2017) here.

Tape storage is currently the most secure, energy efficient and cost-effective solution for storing enormous amounts of back-up and archival data, as well as for new applications such as Big Data and cloud computing.

This new record areal recording is more than 20 times the used in current state of the art commercial tape drives such as the IBM TS1155 enterprise tape drive, and it enables the potential to record up to about 330 terabytes (TB) of uncompressed data on a single tape cartridge that would fit in the palm of your hand.

Assuming the same format overheads as the TS1155 format and taking into account the 6.4% increase in tape length enabled by the thinner demo tape. A TS1155 JD cartridge, can hold 15 TB of uncompressed data in a 4.29 in. x 4.92 in. x 0.96 in. (109.0 mm x 125 mm x 24.5 mm) form factor.

330 terabytes of data are comparable to the text of 330 million books, which would fill a bookshelf that stretches slightly beyond the northeastern to the southwestern most tips of Japan.

Credit: IBM

Magnetic tape data storage is currently experiencing a renaissance. With this achievement, IBM scientists demonstrate the viability of continuing to scale the tape roadmap for another decade.

"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," said IBM Fellow Evangelos Eleftheriou. "While sputtered tape is expected to cost a little more to manufacture than current commercial tape that uses Barium ferrite (BaFe), the potential for very high capacity will make the cost per TB very attractive, making this technology practical for cold storage in the cloud."

To achieve 201 billion bits per square inch, IBM researchers developed several new technologies, including:

  • Innovative signal-processing algorithms for the data channel, based on noise-predictive detection principles, which enable reliable operation at a linear density of 818,000 bits per inch with an ultra-narrow 48nm wide tunneling magneto-resistive (TMR) reader.
  • A set of advanced servo control technologies that when combined enable head positioning with an accuracy of better than 7 nanometers. This combined with a 48nm wide (TMR) hard disk drive read head enables a track density of 246,200 tracks per inch, a 13-fold increase over a state of the art TS1155 drive.
  • A novel low friction tape head technology that permits the use of very smooth tape media
Sony and IBM Research Zurich today announced a magnetic tape storage technology with the industry’s highest recording areal density for tape storage media, at 201 Gb/in2. This achievement was made possible by bringing together Sony’s new magnetic tape technology employing lubricant with IBM Research Zurich’s newly developed write/read heads and its next-generation servo and signal processing technologies. The recording areal density of 201 Gb/in2 is approximately 20x greater than conventional magnetic tape storage media (9.6 Gb/in2). The resulting next-generation technology can support high-capacity storage of approximately 330 TB per data cartridge, whereas conventional technology can only handle 15 TB per data cartridge. Credit: Sony

IBM has been working closely with Sony Storage Media Solutions for several years, particularly on enabling increased areal recording densities. The results of this collaboration have led to various improvements in the media technology, such as advanced roll-to-roll technology for long sputtered tape fabrication and better lubricant technology, which stabilizes the functionality of the .

Many of the technologies developed and used in the areal density demonstrations are later incorporated into future tape products. Two notable examples from 2007 include an advanced noise predictive maximum likelihood read channel and first generation BaFe tape media.

IBM has a long history of innovation in magnetic tape data storage. Its first commercial tape product, the 726 Magnetic Tape Unit, was announced more than 60 years ago. It used reels of half-inch-wide tape that each had a capacity of about 2 megabytes. The areal density demonstration announced today represents a potential increase in capacity of 165,000,000 times compared with IBM's first tape drive product. This announcement reaffirms IBM's ongoing commitment and leadership in magnetic tape .

Explore further: Tape storage milestone demonstrates record in areal density of 123 billion bits per square inch

More information: Simeon Furrer et al. 201 Gb/in² Recording Areal Density on Sputtered Magnetic Tape, IEEE Transactions on Magnetics (2017). DOI: 10.1109/TMAG.2017.2727822

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1 / 5 (2) Aug 03, 2017
Must be depressing working on improving what is a dead end technology
5 / 5 (2) Aug 03, 2017
Must be depressing working on improving what is a dead end technology

How dead is it when even the cloud uses tape backups?

No better way to do it. Remember, RAID is not backup, and optical media is too expensive and small: a HVD records about 6 TB.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2017
@Eikka Like spinning hard drives are not a dead end tech because people still use them?
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 03, 2017
@dirk Different tools for different jobs. Tablets and smart phones rely on flash memory, laptops and desktops now commonly use SSDs for at least the operating system and programs, HDDs for larger storage. Large data centers that need to store large volumes of data in relatively small physical volumes (and, presumably cheaper media), but don't need to access that data with particularly high speed, tape is still a very useful medium for storage.
2 / 5 (4) Aug 03, 2017
I still have my dad's wire recorder from the 1940's.

Maybe I'll give it to the Smithsonian.
not rated yet Aug 03, 2017
RCA ribbon microphones from the 1930's are heralded as still the best along with audio equipment from Western Electric. They had better ears in those days.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2017
@Eikka Like spinning hard drives are not a dead end tech because people still use them?

Surprisingly enough, when truly large amounts of data need to be transmitted, it's still faster and more economical to ship a whole box of hard drives than trying to send it via the internet.

Cost per gigabyte is roughly 1/10th the cost of SSD.

Plus, data retention times on magnetic media are longer, because flash leaks charge over time. An old tape or hard drive can be still relied to contain something after couple decades, whereas multi-level cell flash drives tend to empty themselves just sitting on the shelf.
Da Schneib
not rated yet Aug 03, 2017
Having had a number of very bad experiences with tape that's a lot more physically stable than this stuff looks, I'll believe it when I see it. The only really reliable tape I've ever seen was the reel-to-reel half-inch 9-track format. I've heard DDS (the same format as DAT) works OK. There are a couple newer cartridge formats that might be, but I'd sure look into it before I trusted it.

It's not a matter of what backup technology is cheapest; it's a matter of how much your data's worth. I suspect that a really reliable tape format is going to be bulky and a lot more expensive than the estimates here. A lot more like the cost of RAID disks (but not SSD, which as @Eikka points out isn't a reliable backup mechanism) than the costs being quoted here, no matter how cheap the tape itself is.

Da Schneib
not rated yet Aug 03, 2017
Overall I think the title is overblown. It's great we have tape with the data density to make backups. But that's pretty much all it's good for and you better make sure the format is as reliable as the medium itself before you start relying on it. And you better store it offsite.

I still recall being in the conference room with the CEO when the CIO said, "Gentlemen, two floors below us is the entire data processing capability of [company name redacted], and five miles that way [points] is the [name redacted] earthquake fault."

As for RAID, unless your data are a cure for cancer or an FTL space drive, the RAID types that can handle two drives dying are good enough, provided you take precautions like making sure you use drives from different lots (so they don't all fail at the same time) and don't let a drive outage last long. Fedex overnight is the right way to order a replacement drive.
not rated yet Aug 04, 2017
SSDs are replacing HDDs in data centers simply because their performance is far superior, and outweighs their extra cost
not rated yet Aug 04, 2017
I remember a company in Canada inventing a technology for VHS tapes as storage, which (at the time) vastly exceeded the storage capacity of hard drives. But the access time was the problem, the company went under.
Aug 04, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
4 / 5 (1) Aug 04, 2017
As for RAID, unless your data are a cure for cancer or an FTL space drive, the RAID types that can handle two drives dying are good enough

RAID is not backup. RAID cannot help you if you accidentally press DEL and your files are gone. RAID cannot help you if you push a corrupt copy of your database onto it and find out weeks later that half your customer records are gibberish. Journaling filesystems help to an extent, but they're still not backups as the entire thing can corrupt while you're using it.

Tapes are used as backup because you can easily have multiple tapes containing different versions of your filesystem at little additional cost datiing back days, weeks, months, years... just have more tapes. That's also sort-of the point of it: even if one tape fails, you can still restore from an earlier copy.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2017
Having had a number of very bad experiences with tape that's a lot more physically stable than this stuff looks

I think the boys at google/amazon/IBM et al. know what they are doing. The calcs regarding MTBF of a system aren't that hard. Pretty sure that if tapes have issues that crop up frequent enough then they're using some kind of tape/'RAID' setup. There are requirements for how safe a backup has to be.

SSDs are replacing HDDs in data centers simply because their performance is far superior,

SSDs aren't a good option for backups, though. Too expensive and not a long enough lifetime. As shavera notes: The use case determines which factor is most important
- energy use
- fast access
- longevity
- price per Gbit storage

Backups require longevity and low price - while energy use and access times are totally inconsequential.
Data center operations on the other hand need access speed and low energy use. Lomgevity and unit price don't matter.
not rated yet Aug 05, 2017
Tape is still the most economical way to keep a backup copy of your data, and for many businesses, they keep a copy of it off site because a site disaster (like a fire, or worse a disgruntled employee) can destroy all your storage media. It's much more expensive to keep it on HDD/SSD on a remote disk subsystem with communication facilities of sufficient bandwidth to store it often enough.
1 / 5 (3) Aug 05, 2017
Don't know what the state of it all is now, but in the Vietnam War we had Lockheed model 417 Instrumentation Recorders onboard our aircraft which monitored activity on the ground.

Great fidelity, but those Mylar belts would drive you nuts.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2017
@Eikka, depends on how important your data is. But for data you need to access regularly tape is not your huckleberry.

@anti, fast, cheap, good, choose two.

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