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5 Things to Know About IBM’s New Tape Storage World Record

December 16, 2020

Data has been around for thousands of years in physical form, all the way back to cave paintings where primitive civilizations innovated ways to preserve tribal memories. The...

Data has been around for thousands of years in physical form, all the way back to cave paintings where primitive civilizations innovated ways to preserve tribal memories. The human race's quest for knowledge, and with it the inexorable and exponential growth of data, has required ever more sophisticated ways of storing, securing and retrieving information. Even as new technologies have arrived, tape media has proven to be one of the most secure, most reliable and most enduring ways to store data. 

Tape has progressed a long way since the reel-to-reel images one might think of from the 1960s. Today's tape technologies are the cornerstone of the world's largest enterprises and hyperscale cloud providers because of the cost, security and durability. At IBM, we continue to reinvent tape, from working with the largest hyperscale providers to future proofing the technology for decades to come.

Today, IBM announced a new tape storage milestone bringing together 15 years of work between IBM researchers and FUJIFILM to demonstrate how to store increasingly more data on a tape cartridge that can fit in the palm of your hand. This reaffirms the role tape will play in our hybrid cloud future and in preserving the world’s memories for decades to come.

Here are five things to know about tape and why it matters to business:  

1. Investing in tape innovation is the answer to surging volumes of data changing the storage landscape

It’s no surprise we’re creating more and more data. Currently we produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data[1] on a daily basis. At the rate we’re going, worldwide data is expected to hit 175 zettabytes by 2025[2], with as much of the data residing in the cloud as in data centers. To put that into perspective, one zettabyte is equivalent to a trillion gigabytes – you can find 256 gigabytes in today’s current mobile phone. 

Tape is an optimal storage solution, especially for those managing next-generation workloads that are pushing the data limits even further. This includes areas like the Internet of Things (IoT), the emergence of high-definition 4K/8K videos, AI-based big-data analyses and hyperscale computing.

With today’s new benchmark, scientists discovered that a single tape cartridge has the potential to store about 580 terabytes (TB) of data. What does that look like? 580 TB is equivalent to 786,977 CDs stacked 944 meters high, which is taller than Burj Kalifa, the world’s tallest building[3]

2. Hyperscale and hybrid cloud providers are turning to tape as a strategic imperative

The number of hyperscale datacenters now exceeds 500, the number having tripled since 2013[4]. These large-scale service providers require storage solutions that can accommodate holding large volumes of data for an extended period to time.  In the past, most of the data in the cloud was on hard disk. But hard disks can be expensive and consume energy and power, as they are constantly spinning. Because of this, cloud providers are now starting to introduce tape into their infrastructure to have a low-cost storage solution that is highly effective at archiving data. 

For example, during a software update for Gmail, a group of users found all of their accounts were unintentionally deleted. While the company has a redundant system of data centers around the world with multiple copies of data, the software gets replicated across all of the data centers—so the same error happened everywhere—but because they also had a copy on tape, it was possible to rebuild the lost accounts.

3. Tape is highly effective against ransomware and cyber threats

Data protection and security are of the utmost importance in today’s hybrid cloud world. Tape can play a critical role in protecting against cyberattacks and ransomware. When it comes to security, tape can be physically and logically removed from any electronic connections known, creating a physical barrier or “airgap” that works to mitigate more sophisticated attacks that could otherwise corrupt the data. 

And while today’s tape storage has made tremendous technological advances in terms of protection, we are also innovating to future proof the technology for decades to come – something we demonstrated last year with the unveiling of the first quantum safe tape drive prototype.

4. Breaking a world record while collaborating to advance the tape roadmap

Working with engineers at FUJIFILM, IBM set yet another new world record in tape storage – the sixth since 2006. Pushing the limits, IBM achieved 317 GB/in2 (gigabits per square inch) in areal density on a prototype strontium ferrite (SrFe) particulate magnetic tape developed by FUJIFILM. This is approximately 27 times more than the areal density used in current state-of-the-art commercial tape drives. 

And that’s not all, to do so the scientists had to innovate new technologies that were necessary to enable this type of benchmark. First, they needed to create a new material to help further the scale density of tape. The current generation of tape uses barium ferrite (BaFe) particles to coat the magnetic tape storage media. FUJIFULM went back to the chemistry lab and invented something new called Strontium Ferrite (SrFe) in order to store all that data in such a tight space.  

Secondly, reading and writing world-record data volumes requires lighting fast tape speeds. The unprecedented high speed of tape passing over the tape head creates multiple challenges with accuracy, so new heads and servo technologies needed to be designed. The new servo technologies made head positioning possible at a world record accuracy of 3.2 nm. 

5. The future relies on a ‘vintage’ technology

The research revealed that digital magnetic tape—a storage medium invented in 1952—continues to be an ideal technology not just for storing enormous amounts of backup and archival data but also for new applications such as in hybrid cloud environments. 

IBM’s work represents a potential improvement in capacity of roughly 48-fold over an LTO8 cartridge, the latest industry-standard magnetic tape product and a 29-fold improvement over IBM’s current enterprise class tape product. IBM’s tape technology facilitates seamless interfacing with cloud technology and allows native cloud applications to be able to write to and read from tape without the need for specialized or proprietary skillsets or software. It is precisely this intersection of cloud technology and tape technology that will enable organizations to implement an unmatched scalable, affordable and secure data strategy. 


[1] Seed Scientific, Branka Vuleta, How much data is created every day? 27 Staggering stats, January 2020

[2] 1. IDC, David Reinsel, et al. “Data Age 2025, the Digitalization of the world from edge to core”, November 2018

[3] Guinness World Record, Burj Khalifa: The tallest building in the world

[4]Synergy Research, analyst firm says the total worldwide is now at 541, up from 500 in October 2019. And there are 176 currently under construction or in planning.

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