Only about a year ago did Sony announce that their researchers succeeded in storing 185 TB on a magnetic tape at their lab. IBM and Fujifilm have now announced that they have managed to store 220 terabytes of data on a tape prototype. This proves that tape storage technology has not yet reached its limits by far. Based on the usual time span required for a product to be ready for marketing since its first functional prototype is developed at the lab, it can be assumed that these tapes will be available on the market in less than ten years!
At the presentation of this new record in magnetic tape storage, IBM and its subsidiary Fujifilm Recording Media (FRM) announced that now the entire human genome of 220 people might be saved on a single cartridge. The capacity corresponds to 88 times that of a magnetic tape of the most advanced representative of LTO – LTO 6, a total of 220 terabytes. The publication of these results comes at a time when the amount of data grows constantly and the trend towards complete “dematerialisation of data” through cloud storage and virtualisation will be boosted in the coming years. The possibility of obtaining higher capacities for long-term archiving of data on magnetic tapes is eagerly awaited by users and producers alike.
How did IBM and Fujifilm achieve this feat?
To put it in a simple manner, magnetic tape reading heads have shrinked by a factor of 11 since 2006. At that time, heads used a track width of 1.5 micrometres and were able to read or write 8 terabytes of data. The new prototype, however, only requires 0.14 micrometres, i.e. 140 nanometres. But this isn’t the only reason for this success. The density of bits per inch also had to be increased, actually from 400,000 to 680,000 bits/inch (123 billion bits per square inch), i.e. an increase by a factor of 1.7. Thus 170 terabytes can be stored on a tape of the same length as those commonly used today. However, since the depth of the tape was also modified from 6.1 µm to 4.3 µm, the total length of the magnetic tape could be increased from 890 metres to 1,255 metres. Thus, taking into account the new length of the tape, when the new capacity is calculated, the result is around 210 terabytes, a little less than presented by IBM and Fujifilm. It is thus evident that some of the information given by the manufacturers has a margin of error of around 5%.
Although the capacity of an LTO Ultrium 6 with 2.5 TB is a hundred times less than that of the newly unveiled prototype, the implementation of the technology for this latest LTO magnetic tape alone is proof of the efforts and the enormous resources to be invested in research and development until this tape can actually go into production. The successes currently achieved are an indication of the future possibilities still to be provided by magnetic tape technology. If future innovations still to be expected in terms of miniaturisation and mechanical precision are considered, one can well imagine that magnetic strips still thinner by one micrometre might still be developed. Thus, in the future, tapes could be up to 1,900 metres long and due to their greater thinness alone, they would be able to store 100 additional terabytes of data.