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From IBM Research, Hybrid Clouds Will Rely on Magnetic Tape for Decades to Come

With FujiFilm tape, 48.3x more capacity than LTO-8

IBM Corp. and FujiFilm Corporation prototype breaks world record, delivers record 27x more areal density than today’s tape drives

Currently IBM produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data on a daily basis, mainly due to the continuous rise of the IoT, the emergence of high-definition 4K/8K videos and AI-based big-data analyses. At the rate we’re going, worldwide data is expected to hit 175 zettabytes by 2025, representing 61% annual growth. 1ZB is equivalent to a trillion gigabytes  – the latest cellphones have 256GB.

So where is all this data being stored?

There are now more than 500 hyperscale data centers in the world storing an estimated 547EB of actual data, with more than 151 facilities underway. Not only is this a lot of data, it’s a lot of energy consumption. In fact, by 2023 hyperscale energy consumption is expected to nearly triple from 2015.

The one technology can handle that the massive growth of digital data, keep it protected from cyber crime attacks and is archiving data for some of the largest hyperscale data centers in the world is a technology more than 60 years old – magnetic tape.

Breaking world record
Now IBM is unveiling a new milestone bringing to light work more than 15 years in the making between IBM researchers and Fujifilm. Together, we have set yet another new world record in tape storage – our 6th since 2006. Pushing the limits, we achieved 317Gb/in2 in areal density on a prototype strontium ferrite (SrFe) particulate magnetic tape developed by Fujifilm.

in terms of storage potential, a single tape cartridge with this new areal density has the potential to store about 580TB of data. Just to put that in perspective, 580TB is equivalent to 786,977 CDs stacked 944 meters high, which is taller than Burj Kalifa, the world’s tallest building. That’s a colossal amount of data. All fitting on a tape cartridge on the palm of your hand.

While tape has been around for more than 60 years it has improved with age. The current generation of tape uses barium ferrite (BaFe) particles to coat the magnetic tape storage media, but to further scale density, Fujifilm has gone back to the chemistry lab and invented something new called Strontium Ferrite (SrFe). SrFe can be made into smaller particles with ‘superior properties,’ meaning higher density storage on the same amount of tape.

In addition to introducing SrFe particulate magnetic tape, IBM also developed a new set of technologies to achieve this record, including a new low friction tape head technology that enables the use of very smooth tape media and a detector that enables reliable detection of data written on the SrFe media at a linear density of 702Kbpi when it is read back with an ultra-narrow 29nm wide TMR read sensor.

The company also developed a family of new servo-mechanical technologies including a new servo pattern that is pre-recorded in the servo tracks, a prototype head actuator and a set of servo controllers. Essentially, servo tracks are what help the servo controller maintain a precise positioning of the read/write heads relative to the tape using the head actuator. the new servo technologies made head positioning possible at a record accuracy of 3.2nm.

When tape is being read, it is streamed over the head at a speed of about 15km/h and with the new servo technologies, we are still able to position the tape head with an accuracy that is about 1.5x the width of a of DNA molecule.

IBM estimates that today more than 345,000EB of data currently reside in tape storage systems. With this advancements, the firm demonstrates the viability of scaling the tape roadmap for another decade.

Tape behind cloud
So what does this new tape record mean in the grand scheme of things? It means that digital magnetic tape ) a storage medium invented in 1952 with an initial capacity of about 2MB per reel – continues to be a technology for storing enormous amounts of backup and archival data, and also for new applications such as in hybrid cloud environments.

This work represents a potential improvement in capacity of 48.3x over an LTO-8 cartridge, the latest industry-standard magnetic tape product, and a 29x improvement over IBM’s current enterprise class tape product. This 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 a scalable, affordable and secure data strategy.

With more data being stored on-premise and in hybrid clouds, corporate tech giants and academic institutions continue to turn to magnetic tape technology for archival storage.

So why is tape the go-to for top enterprises and hyperscale providers archiving data? It is tape’s low cost per gigabyte, long-term durability, reliability, low energy, security and scalability that have driven its advancement and ensured its longevity far into the future.

In terms of costs, storing data on tape is pennies per gigabyte and when not in use, tape requires no energy unlike hard disks and flash. Tape-stored data ensures that cloud providers will have the data they need when they need it. In addition, when stored properly, data recorded on tape today will still be readable in 30 years.

Challenges around data protection and security are also top of mind for many in today’s hybrid cloud world. Tape can play a critical role in protecting against cybe-rattacks 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’ which works to mitigate more sophisticated attacks that could otherwise corrupt the data.

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

Finally, an archive must be able to scale. With data growing at 61% on average per year, another advantage of tape technology is its areal density scaling potential. Because the size of the bits used in current commercial tape system are still quite big compared to hard disk bits, tape has a lot of head room to keep shrinking the bits, hence the increasing capacity.

While we may never go back to the days of making mixed tapes for our secret crush, tape will certainly live on behind the scenes of big companies, storing all those zettabytes of data.


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