4 minute read

Hybrid clouds will rely on magnetic tape for decades to come

A new IBM and FUJIFILM Corporation prototype breaks world record, delivers record 27 times more areal density than today’s tape drives.

A new IBM and FUJIFILM Corporation prototype breaks world record, delivers record 27 times more areal density than today’s tape drives.

Currently we produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data on a daily basis, mainly due to the continuous rise of the Internet of Things (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 percent annual growth. One ZB is equivalent to a trillion gigabytes (GB) – the latest cellphones have 256 GB.

So where is all this data being stored?

There are now more than 500 hyperscale data centers in the world storing an estimated 547 exabytes (EB) 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 a world record

Today 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 sixth since 2006. Pushing the limits, we 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.

IBM is committed to tape and supporting its integration in hybrid cloud environments

In terms of storage potential, a single tape cartridge with this new areal density has the potential to store about 580 terabytes (TB) of data. Just to put that in perspective, 580 TB 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, we also developed a new set of technologies to achieve this new 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 702 Kbpi when it is read back with an ultra-narrow 29 nm wide TMR read sensor.

But that’s not all — we 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. Our new servo technologies made head positioning possible at a world record accuracy of 3.2 nm.

Just let me geek out for a second: When tape is being read it is streamed over the head at a speed of about 15 km/h and with our new servo technologies we are still able to position the tape head with an accuracy that is about 1.5 times the width of a of DNA molecule.

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

Tape behind the 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 2 MB per reel — 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.

Our work represents a potential improvement in capacity of roughly 50-fold (48.3x) 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.

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.  Put simply, 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 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” which 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.

Finally, an archive must be able to scale. With data growing at 61 percent on average per year, another clear 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.

Lantz, Mark; Furrer, Simeon; Ebermann, Patrick; Rothuizen, Hugo; Haeberle, Walter; Cherubini, Giovanni; et al. (2020): 317 Gb/in2 Recording Areal Density on Strontium Ferrite Tape. TechRxiv. Preprint.