Do computers still use magnetic tape?

Magnetic tape may seem like an antiquated technology from the early days of computing, yet it continues to play a vital role in data storage for many organizations today. While tape has disappeared from consumer devices and personal computers, it remains an essential part of IT infrastructure, especially for backup, archival, and disaster recovery applications. Tape offers unique advantages in terms of cost, capacity, lifespan, and energy efficiency that make it ideal for certain long-term data storage needs. Though hard disk drives and flash storage now dominate for primary storage, tape has proven remarkably resilient as a secondary storage solution. Its staying power is a testament to the singular benefits of magnetic tape technology.

Brief History of Magnetic Tape

Magnetic tape was first developed in 1928 as a way to store audio recordings, not computer data. It was invented by Fritz Pfleumer who used a thin strip of paper or plastic coated with magnetizable material to store sound recordings. This technology was adapted by companies like AEG and BASF for use in reel-to-reel tape recorders.

It wasn’t until 1951 that magnetic tape was first adapted for computer data storage and backup. The UNIVAC I computer built by Eckert and Mauchly featured a magnetic tape system called UNISERVO that could store up to 2.5 MB of data. This was a major breakthrough compared to existing storage media like delay line memory or mercury memory which only held kilobytes of data.

By the 1980s and 1990s, magnetic tape became widely used for data backup and archiving in personal computers and enterprise systems. Tape provided much higher capacity than earlier floppy disks and hard drives, while also being removable for offsite storage and disaster recovery purposes. Major tape formats like DLT, LTO, and DAT were in widespread use before declining in the 2000s.


Decline of Tape in Personal Computing

Though magnetic tape revolutionized data storage in the early days of computing, its dominance did not last as personal computers became widespread in homes and offices. Smaller and more convenient storage media like floppy disks became the norm for individual PCs in the 1970s and 1980s. Tape was bulky, slow for random access, and impractical for storing small amounts of data, so floppy disks that could hold up to 1.44 MB took over as the preferred portable storage format.

Later on, new storage technologies emerged that offered even more advantages over tape. Optical discs like CDs and DVDs, followed by faster and higher capacity hard disk drives, became the dominant storage media for personal computers in the 1990s and 2000s. These allowed for random access to data, greater portability, and ever increasing amounts of storage capacity. As home computers and office networks spread, tape could not compete and was no longer the medium of choice for individual computer data storage.

Continued Use in Enterprise Storage

While tape storage has largely disappeared from consumer computing devices, it continues to play an important role in enterprise IT environments. Tape remains a convenient, cost-effective solution for backing up very large datasets. Some key advantages that maintain the popularity of tape for backup and archival storage include:

Tape cartridges are very convenient for transporting large backups offsite for disaster recovery. A single tape cartridge can hold massive amounts of data, up to 15 TB for LTO-8. This makes managing large backups much simpler compared to disk (, 2022).

Tape offers very high storage capacity at a low cost per GB compared to disk-based solutions. The average cost per GB for tape is about 1/6th the price of disk. Storing archival data that is rarely accessed is far cheaper on tape (, 2022).

With a long shelf life of 30 years or more and proper storage conditions, tape is ideal for archival data that needs to be retained but is rarely accessed. This makes it well-suited for compliance and records retention requirements (, 2021).

Advantages of Tape Storage

One of the key advantages of magnetic tape storage is its high reliability for long-term data archiving and backup. Tape has proven to be a very stable medium that can retain data for 30 years or more if stored properly. This makes it ideal for industries like media, healthcare, and government that need to preserve data for decades.

Tape cartridges that are stored offline require no energy to maintain the data. This makes tape a very energy efficient solution for infrequently accessed cold data. Reduced energy costs make tape more affordable for long-term storage compared to spinning disk.

The portable nature of tape cartridges allows them to be easily transported offsite for secure archiving. This prevents loss of data in the event of a disaster at the primary site. Tape’s offline and removable properties lower the risk of unauthorized access or malicious electronic attacks.

Disadvantages of Tape

While tape storage offers important advantages like longevity and low cost, it also comes with some notable drawbacks:

Slow sequential access times – One of the biggest disadvantages of tape is that data access is very slow compared to disk storage. Tapes must be read sequentially from beginning to end to locate specific data, which results in very long access times. This makes tape unsuitable for applications requiring random access.[1]

Risk of data loss if media degrades – Tape has a finite lifespan and the quality degrades over time, especially if stored improperly. This can lead to irrecoverable data loss if the tape is damaged or degrades before data can be migrated to a new tape. Proper tape rotation and refreshment is crucial.[2]

Requires proper management – Tapes must be manually handled and rotated for refreshing. Automated tape libraries and specialized software is required to manage and maintain a large tape archive. If mismanaged, there is a higher risk of data loss compared to automated disk-based backup solutions.

Overall, while invaluable for large backups and archiving, tape’s sequential nature and vulnerability to physical damage requires proper management and rotation to minimize the risks.



Tape Capacity and Speeds

The capacity of magnetic tape cartridges has grown tremendously over the years. The latest generation of Linear Tape-Open (LTO) technology, LTO-9, offers compressed capacities up to 60 TB per cartridge and native capacities up to 18 TB. Earlier generations of LTO, such as LTO-8, offer compressed capacities of 30 TB and native capacities of 12 TB.

In terms of data transfer rates, LTO drives can achieve impressive speeds. LTO-9 drives have native transfer rates of up to 750 MB/s. The native transfer rate refers to the speed at which data is written to or read from the tape without any compression or encryption. Earlier generations, such as LTO-8, have native transfer rates of up to 360 MB/s according to IBM.

These capacities and transfer speeds make tape ideal for backup, archiving and disaster recovery applications where large amounts of data need to be stored securely and cost-effectively. The portability of tape cartridges also makes them useful for transporting data offsite.

The Future of Tape Storage

Even with the rise of other storage technologies, tape continues to play an important role in data centers, especially for long-term data retention and archiving. As the amount of data generated continues to grow exponentially, tape offers a reliable and cost-effective solution for storing cold data over long periods of time. This makes it well-suited for supporting cloud archives.

For example, Amazon Web Services uses magnetic tape as the backend for its Glacier cloud archive service, which offers storage costs as low as $0.004 per GB per month (1). By leveraging tape for cost-efficient long-term retention of data that does not need to be frequently accessed, enterprises can reduce their overall storage costs as part of a tiered storage infrastructure.

Tape technology itself continues to improve with innovations like higher capacities, throughput speeds, and reliability. LTO-9, the latest LTO format, can hold 18TB per cartridge with transfer speeds of up to 1,000 MB/s (2). As technology advances, tape is projected to reach capacities of 148TB per cartridge by 2030 (3). This ongoing progression makes tape storage future-proof for archives.

New use cases are also emerging, such as using tape as the backend for high-capacity SSDs designed for AI analytics and other IO-intensive workloads. Fujifilm demonstrated this concept with its Virtual Tape SSD, which combines the low cost of tape with the performance of flash. Solutions like this indicate tape may find expanded roles even outside of long-term archiving moving forward (4).



Although magnetic tape may seem like a relic of computing’s past, it continues to play an essential role in enterprise data storage and backup. While tape has disappeared from consumer devices and personal computers, it remains highly relevant for particular data storage needs. Specifically, tape’s unmatched portability, longevity, and cost-efficiency for high-capacity, secure archives has kept it firmly entrenched in many datacenters and storage networks.

Despite hard disk drives offering vastly higher performance for primary and nearline storage, tape provides unique value in offline “cold” storage. Data that rarely needs to be accessed can be economically stored offline on tape. The linear format also lends itself well to sequential media scans for backups and archives. With native capacities now reaching multiple tens of terabytes per cartridge, and expected to continue growing, tape will likely remain a niche but critical part of the storage hierarchy for the foreseeable future.


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