Potential magnetic tape storage capacity surges in 'renaissance'

Tape technology continues to improve, resulting in huge possibilities for capacity. With data growth, tape has received new customers; some don't even realize they're using it.

Fujifilm and IBM Research set a record for tape recording density, strengthening tape's roadmap and setting the stage for cartridges that can hold more than half a petabyte of data.

The companies achieved the world record of 317 gigabytes per square inch recording density in tests using strontium ferrite, a new magnetic particle. The development of this technology can produce native magnetic tape storage capacity of 580 TB on one cartridge, equivalent to data on 120,000 DVDs, according to Fujifilm. The current LTO-9 generation has 18 TB native capacity, 45 TB compressed.

Large storage capacities are in need as data has increased at an exponential rate, thanks in part to high-resolution video, IoT devices and big data analysis. Hyperscale cloud providers use tape for infrequently accessed data storage. In addition, tape's natural air gap when not mounted in a drive provides protection from cyber attacks.

"I like to think of tape as experiencing a renaissance," said Mark Lantz, manager of cloud FPGA and tape technologies at IBM Research.

Analyzing tape's place in the storage industry

In 2019, 114,000 PB of magnetic tape storage capacity shipped, according to the LTO Program. Christophe Bertrand, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), a division of TechTarget, said he thinks there will be an "exponential growth" in tape storage use.

Microscopic images of the cross-section of tapes' magnetic layers showing the difference between barium ferrite (BaFe) and strontium ferrite (SrFe) magnetic particles
These electron microscopic images of the cross-section of tapes' magnetic layers show the difference between barium ferrite (BaFe) and strontium ferrite (SrFe) magnetic particles.

"The more data gets produced, the more tape you're going to need," Bertrand said.

As the magnetic tape storage capacity per cartridge rises, the cost to manage tapes decreases, said Vinny Choinski, senior lab analyst at ESG. For example, an organization could transition from a storage room for its tape library to needing just a couple of racks, thanks to the large capacity improvement, Choinski said.

In addition, tape's "green" nature is distinct, Bertrand said. A tape that sits on a shelf does not use energy, especially compared to disk systems that are constantly running.

"What this demo shows is tape has this very long-term potential to keep scaling," Lantz said.

A range of customers need large magnetic tape storage capacity, including universities, financial institutions, science organizations and high-performance computing businesses. Some of the most recent customers are the hyperscale cloud providers, Lantz said. They traditionally used HDDs, but the cost is too high for the data growth, he said.

If you use Gmail, you're using tape. ... Everybody uses tape, you just don't realize it anymore.
Mark LantzManager of cloud FPGA and tape technologies, IBM Research

"For many people, they think tape technology disappeared 10 or 15 years ago," Lantz said. "If you use Gmail, you're using tape. ... Everybody uses tape, you just don't realize it anymore."

The data growth necessitates a combination of flash, disk, cloud and tape storage, said Rich Gadomski, head of tape evangelism at Fujifilm.

"It's really about storage optimization and getting the right data in the right place at the right time," Gadomski said.

A petabyte is not as rare as it used to be -- Gadomski noted that some customers have exabyte requirements.

"The growth of data is pretty relentless," he said.

The (extremely) fine print

Tape developers will potentially introduce strontium ferrite in LTO-11, Gadomski said. The LTO roadmap extends to the 12th generation, expected to offer 144 TB native magnetic tape storage capacity per cartridge.

There isn't a technological roadblock to fulfilling the roadmap, Gadomski said.

LTO roadmap chart

Strontium ferrite magnetic particles are 60% smaller than barium ferrite particles, which tapes currently use. Strontium ferrite is a highly magnetic and stable material, it's used as a raw material in magnets for motors, and it maintains high performance when processed into fine particles, according to Fujifilm.

The previous capacity high that Fujifilm and IBM demonstrated, with barium ferrite, was 220 TB in 2015, Gadomski said. He noted that Sony and IBM demonstrated a 330 TB capacity on one cartridge in 2017.

IBM, which sells tape drives and libraries, and tape media manufacturer Fujifilm have had a partnership for about 20 years.

The current project to increase recording density and capacity goes back 2 1/2 years. The result is a lab-scale prototype, so the next level of development is addressing questions and testing the media across different environments, Lantz said.

In addition to the increased capacity, tape technology has added more tracks and improved speeds and feeds, according to Choinski.

"Anytime that happens, it's a good thing for people who are storing a lot of data," Choinski said.

Paul Crocetti is a senior site editor in TechTarget's IT Infrastructure and Strategy Media Group. He became editor of the SearchStorage site in January 2021, after serving as editor of the SearchDataBackup and SearchDisasterRecovery sites since June 2015. He also continues to cover news in the backup and disaster recovery markets.

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