IBM Boasts of Big Tape Breakthrough
August 9, 2017 Alex Woodie
Reports of tape’s death have been greatly exaggerated in recent years. But if IBM Research can turn a technological breakthrough it made with Sony in the lab into an actual product, tape will remain relevant for decades to come.
IBM last week announced that it set a new record for areal density on magnetic tape when it achieved 201 gigabits per square inch with a prototype for a new “sputtered” magnetic tape format, which it says is 20 times the areal density used in current state-of-the-art commercial tape drives. The achievement could enable the production of a tape cartridge that can store 330 TB of uncompressed data, Big Blue says.
By comparison, the current breadwinner in IBM’s tape lineup, LTO-7, sports a native (uncompressed) capacity of 6 TB per cartridge, while its high-end tape drive, the IBM TS1155, a descendent of the enterprise Magstar 3590 line, can squeeze 15 TB of uncompressed data onto a single JD tape cartridge. Both the TS1155 and LTO-7 drives have areal densities on the order of about 1 Gb per square inch.
IBM’s storage breakthrough was achieved with its partner, the Sony Storage Media Solutions division of Sony, with whom IBM has been working for several years. IBM has also achieved tape breakthroughs with another Japanese vendor, Fujifilm, with whom it demonstrated the capability to push LTO’s native capacity past 150 TB back in 2015.
The partners developed several new technologies to achieve the density and capacity breakthroughs of the new sputtered format, including a new 48 nanometer tunneling magneto-resistive (TMR) head that can write at 13 times the density of the TS1155 drives; new servo control technologies that can deliver head positioning that is accurate down to 7 nanometers; new signal-processing algorithms for use with the 48 nm TMR head; and new low-friction tape head technology for use with very smooth tape media.
If the new sputtered tape format makes its way into an actual product – or more likely, if one or more of the technological breakthroughs that IBM and Sony demonstrated last week get picked up at some point in the future in a different product development program – then it could help to change the economics of cloud storage.
At least, that’s according to IBM Fellow Evangelos Eleftheriou, who is apparently quite bullish on the possibility of tape drives to replace spinning disk for storing petabytes worth of archive data in cloud data centers.
“Tape has traditionally been used for video archives, back-up files, replicas for disaster recovery, and retention of information on premise, but the industry is also expanding to off-premise applications in the cloud,” Eleftheriou says. “While sputtered tape is expected to cost a little more to manufacture than current commercial tape that uses Barium ferrite (BaFe), the potential for very high capacity will make the cost per TB very attractive, making this technology practical for cold storage in the cloud.”
Tape’s continued relevance could disrupt the economics of storage. In fact, according to IBM executives that spoke with IT Jungle last year, IBM is moving forward with the assumption that the days are numbered for traditional spinning disk. In the future, organizations will use Flash-based solid state disks (SSDs) for hot data and tape for cold data, a setup dubbed FLAPE.
“Why would anybody buy a spinning disk that has moving parts and is destined to fail, when you can buy something that has no moving parts and is proven to be more reliable, and uses less power?” Gary Albert, business line executive for IBM Storage, told us last year.
Thanks to its cost and capacity advantages over hard disks, tape continues to sell very well. IBM is reaping the rewards of tape’s renaissance, and is the number one provider of tape drives in the industry. According to the IDC, IBM’s market share increased from 36 percent to 43 percent from 2015 to 2016.
“Tape continues to be the lowest-cost storage media in the industry,” Jeff Barber, vice president offering management for IBM Storage, writes in a blog post. “It makes tremendous economic sense in environments characterized by petabytes moving to exabytes. It’s not a surprise that large-scale cloud services providers and global enterprises have embraced tape as a means to store large volumes of data at an affordable price.”
Tape’s presence in IBM i data centers has decreased in recent years. However, it still sports a significant foothold.
In HelpSystems IBM i Marketplace Survey for 2017, one-third of organizations report tape as their main form of disaster recovery. That’s down from about 38 percent the year before. The main culprit in tape’s decline appears to be high availability solutions, which grew from 44 percent of IBM i shops saying it was their main form of DR in 2016, to nearly 49 percent in HelpSystems’ 2017 report.