Sony's new magnetic tape technology enables 185 TB cartridges


May 5, 2014

Sony has increased the capacity of magnetic tape, which is still widely used for data backups (Photo: Shutterstock)

Sony has increased the capacity of magnetic tape, which is still widely used for data backups (Photo: Shutterstock)

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One of the joys of old science fiction movies is watching the giant reel-to-reel tape drives spin around as they serve computers less powerful than a modern wristwatch. But magnetic tape isn't just something found in old UFO episodes; it’s a key component in modern digital systems required to keep modern online systems reliable. At the INTERMAG Europe 2014 international magnetics conference in Dresden, Sony announced a new breakthrough in magnetic tape technology that keeps the medium relevant by allowing a tape cartridge to carry 74 times the data of a conventional data tape, or the equivalent of 3,700 Blu-ray discs.

Tapes were the backbone of computer memory storage from the 1950s until the late 1980s. They're familiar to early home computer users in the form of the humble audio cassette that saved them from having to laboriously type in a program every time they wanted to run it. In everyday life, tapes were replaced so universally by hard discs, flash drives and optical media including CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays that it often comes as a surprise to learn that magnetic tape is still widely used as back up memory for servers and databases. Because, while discs may be fast and flexible, tape still has the advantage of being very stable and using much less power than hard disc drives, so tape is anything but yesterday’s technology.

Sony’s breakthrough, which pushes past the previous record set in 2010 by a factor of five, produces a recording density of 146 Gb per square inch. This results in a cartridge capable of holding 185 TB. Conventional tapes fall well short of this by comparison with a density of 2 Gb per square inch and a maximum capacity of 2.5 TB.

To achieve this density, Sony uses a new “sputter” technique to deposit fine nano-grain magnetic particles on a soft polymer underlayer less than 5 micrometers thick. These particles are much smaller than those found in conventional tapes, which are tens of nanometers wide. The fineness of the particles already improves the storage capacity of the material, but the tricky bit was getting particles to line up in an orderly fashion instead of landing at random on the underlayer.

This uniformity was achieved by using an electrostatic discharge to force argon ions into the target material, which forms it into a thin, uniform layer. It involves having the magnetic particles of both the same average size (about 7.7 nanometers) and lined up in the same direction. In addition, the polymer underlayer has been re-engineered to make it much smoother, so the particles lie more evenly. The result is a tape material that Sony boasts has the world's highest recording density by area.

Sony says that it is currently working on commercializing the new tape material, as well as improving the sputter technique to achieve even greater recording densities.

Source: Sony

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

The 2.5 TB uncompressed of Linear Tape-Open (LTO-6) is nothing to sneeze at.

LTO has for some years been the only backup that could store the entire contents of the largest contemporary hard drive on a single piece of media without compression.

100 gig, 200, 400, 800, 1.5 TB, 2.5. LTO-7 is going to be 6.4 TB and 8 will be 12.8.

The media is very inexpensive for the capacity, which is one of the main reasons it was created as an open standard. Proprietary tape systems with high capacity had high licensing fees which made both the drives and the media insanely expensive.

The one problem with LTO is manufacturers have only targeted big business with large amounts of data on servers to back up, sticking with the old concept of needing several tapes to make a full backup.

Thus the latest generation of LTO drives have always been expensive.

To bring down costs the manufacturers should make a desktop LTO drive for the SOHO and home user markets, especially as 1TB and larger drives are becoming common in the desktops and laptops those people use - and don't back up because even a dual layer Blu-Ray recordable (which ain't cheap) won't hold everything on a single disc.

If there was a $150 eSATA LTO-6 drive, being able to make complete backups to a reusable $60 (or less as sales increase) tape would be seen as easy and convenient, and far less costly than buying a second hard drive of the same or larger capacity than what's in their computer.

Buldle an external or internal drive with two tapes and watch sales take off.

But I doubt that will ever happen because the companies making LTO drives are welded to their marketing only to companies with huge amounts of money to spend more on their backup system than their main 'live' storage costs.

Gregg Eshelman

Gregg, I don't see how LTO is better for SOHO when I can get a 1TB HDD

Sven Ollino

That is just outstanding, really impressive density even compared to a harddrive. Perhaps there would be more commercial interest right now in a 1.44 TB version of the floppydrive. :-)

Conny Söre

Regardless of the media or the method "reliable restorability" of the backup determines the quality of the system. My daughter who worked as Unix administrator at a major Swiss bank in New York swears by the tape system. In fact they had a routine of testing the system on a monthly basis for restoring to test for accuracy of the data. From size point of view storing/transferring the backup media on an "off shore" basis tape cassettes win hands down.

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