Some of the earliest computers relied upon tape drives for storage, but we’ve since moved on to faster and more versatile storage technologies. Still, tape drives continue to exist in enterprise, and they’ve been advancing by leaps and bounds while you haven’t been paying attention.

mag tape

IBM just announced a new record in data storage density — 201 gigabits per square inch on a magnetic tape (that’s one square inch of it above). That works out to a whopping 330TB of uncompressed data on a single tape drive cartridge.

IBM reached this plateau in magnetic tape density by developing several new technologies. Older versions of IBM’s magnetic tape used a thin film of barium ferrite particles applied to the surface like paint. “Sputtered tape” uses several layers of thin metal film that are applied using a new vacuum technology. A layer of lubricant is also applied to the reading surface of the tape to keep the tape in good working order as it’s run through the drive. The higher density arrangement of magnetic nanoparticles will, of course, require new drive technology to read.

The new magnetic tape design was created in partnership with Sony, which has been working with IBM on this technology for several years. In fact, the two companies shared a previous record in so-called areal recording density in 2014 when they hit 148 gigabits per square inch. The latest innovation far surpasses that mark with sputtered magnetic tape, but the density is technically lower than the best spinning hard drives.

The compact design of a tape drive cartridge is what makes the medium so useful — you can fit a lot more surface area in reels of magnetic tape than you can with spinning hard drive platters. The largest current hard drives are 12TB in capacity, and you’d need 28 of these drives to match the storage in just one cartridge using the new sputtered magnetic tape. So why don’t we all use magnetic tape drives? They’re more delicate than hard drives, and the speeds are considerably slower. However, magnetic tape is ideal for long-term data archival.

IBM claims by using sputtered tape technology, it will be able to double the data capacity of its tape drive cartridges every two years for at least the next decade. If true, that would work out to an almost unfathomable 10.5 petabytes of storage in a single cartridge by 2027. Some of your online data is probably stored (or at least backed up) with tape drives right now. If IBM’s predictions of capacity increases are true, there might be a lot more of it on tape drives in the future.


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