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The Future of the Cloud Depends on Magnetic Tape

A brutal legal battle between Sony and Fujifilm could threaten supplies.

Every day, internet users create trillions of bytes of information, an inconceivable mass of ones and zeros, that are then stored in the cloud computing farms run by the world’s biggest companies. As data centers proliferate from the Midwest to the Arctic Circle, spare a thought for the cloud’s backup plan: untold hundreds of millions of magnetic tapes. “It’s part of what’s keeping the world running,” says Paul Luppino, director of technology services for data management at Iron Mountain Inc., which has stored more than 85 million inch-thick, four-and-a-half-inch square tapes across a worldwide network of roughly 210 warehouses and old mines. But these days, the tapes may pose their own problem for companies that require a steady supply.

magnetic tape lives on as the preferred medium for safely archiving critical cloud data in case, say, a software bug deletes thousands of Gmail messages, or a natural disaster wipes out some hard drives. The world’s electronic financial, health, and scientific records, collected on state-of-the-art cloud servers belonging to Amazon.com, Microsoft, Google, and others, are also typically recorded on tape around the same time they are created. Usually the companies keep one copy of each tape on-site, in a massive vault, and send a second copy to somebody like Iron Mountain. Unfortunately for the big tech companies, the number of tape manufacturers has shrunk over the past three years from six to just two—Sony Corp. and Fujifilm Holdings Corp.—and each seems to think that’s still one too many.

The Japanese companies have said the tape business is a mere rounding error as far as they’re concerned, but each has spent millions of dollars arguing before the U.S. International Trade Commission to try to ban the other from importing tapes to America. Over the past two years, they’ve accused each other of infringing patents of technologies and methods that, for example, reduce the amount of unwanted “noise” on the tapes or protect them from humidity and temperature changes. Fujifilm won its first complaint, but Sony now claims it has worked around Fujifilm’s patents. A judge is scheduled to announce his preliminary decision in Fujifilm’s latest case against Sony by Oct. 25. A final decision in Sony’s case against Fujifilm is slated for December, according to the ITC. Both companies declined to comment for this story.

The tech industry worries that if Sony or Fujifilm knocks the other out of the U.S., the winner will hike prices, meaning higher costs for the big cloud providers; for old-line storage makers, including International Business Machines, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and Quantum; and, ultimately, for all those companies’ customers. “The pond is shrinking, so there’s a lot of fighting between the crocodiles for the remaining water,” says Phil Goodwin, an analyst at market researcher IDC. Companies such as Maxell Holdings Ltd. and TDK Corp. have abandoned the tape market since 2015 as it has been steadily commoditized, according to ITC filings by IBM, HPE, and Quantum. The cloud providers either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Magnetic tape for recording was first developed in the 1920s in Germany’s Weimar Republic. By the 1950s, IBM was using it to store data as it transitioned from punch-card computers, and a common set of standards established in the late 1990s has helped the technology keep pace with today’s storage needs. While a modern disk can store and retrieve data much more quickly, magnetic tape still has the advantage when it comes to long-term storage, according to Mark Lantz, manager for advanced tape technologies at IBM Research Zurich. Tapes stored at a temperature in the 50F range can last as long as 30 years, far longer than disks, and upgrades developed by the old-line storage makers have increased their capacity exponentially, from 100 gigabytes (100 billion bytes) in 1997 to as much as 30 terabytes (30,000 gigabytes) in the new standard released last year. A physical form disconnected from the internet also provides relative safety from hackers, notes Goodwin. “There’s no way to get ransomware on a tape sitting in a vault.”

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