Magnetic tape drives have been used for data storage and backup for decades. Even with the rise of newer technologies like flash drives, magnetic tapes continue to have some key advantages that make them useful in certain applications. Here we’ll explore some of the main uses and benefits of magnetic tape drives.
Data Backup and Archival Storage
One of the primary uses of magnetic tape is for data backup and archival storage. Tapes are well-suited for this for a few key reasons:
- High capacity – Modern magnetic tapes can store tens of terabytes of data per cartridge. This allows large volumes of data to be stored.
- Longevity – Magnetic tape has a long lifespan, with some tapes rated to store data for 30 years or more if stored properly.
- Offline storage – Tape drives allow data to be stored offline, separate from a main server or system. This protects against data loss from system failure, hacking, or other risks.
- Cost effective – The cost per gigabyte of storage is very low with magnetic tape, especially compared to disk storage.
These advantages make tape well-suited for things like enterprise backup, medical imaging archives, scientific data storage, government records, and other applications where large amounts of data need to be saved for extended periods.
Big Data and High-Capacity Storage
The high storage capacity of modern magnetic tapes also makes them useful for big data storage and analytics. Tasks like processing enormous datasets, performing deep analytics, and training machine learning models require access to huge pools of data. Tape libraries with multiple drives can make tens of petabytes of data available cost-effectively.
Major tech companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and others use magnetic tape for their high-capacity storage needs. The linear format of tape also enables high data transfer speeds when reading/writing data sequentially. This makes tape suitable as a data archive layer in multi-tier storage infrastructures.
Cloud Storage and Data Centers
In addition to on-premise use, magnetic tapes are an important media for cloud storage providers and data centers. The high reliability, low cost, and energy efficiency of tape drives enable cost-effective, massive data storage capabilities.
Major cloud providers use magnetic tape systems to store rarely accessed “cold” data. This cold data might include things like archived consumer photos/videos, old enterprise backups, medical records, etc. Keeping cold data on tape reduces storage costs for cloud providers. It also saves energy since tapes don’t require electricity when not in use.
Disaster Recovery and Backup
Magnetic tapes help enable a key business continuity strategy – taking data offsite to a disaster recovery site. Because tapes are removable media, they can easily be rotated offsite for data protection and disaster recovery purposes.
If a disaster like a flood, fire or cyberattack damages the primary data center, the offsite tapes preserve an up-to-date copy of the data. This allows systems to be restored at the recovery site. Government agencies, financial firms, hospitals and other organizations with critical data needs commonly use tape as part of their continuity plans.
Long-Term Archival Storage
Magnetic tape has long served as a medium for archiving information that needs to be preserved for extended time periods. Archive requirements like this exist in industries like healthcare, sciences, broadcasting, defense and more.
For example, medical facilities may need to retain medical images or records for over a decade due to regulations. Scientific datasets used for long-term research are commonly archived on magnetic tape. Media companies archive historical film/video content on tape for preservation. Tapes stored with proper temperature, humidity and other controls can retain data for decades.
Tape vs. Disk Storage Comparison
When compared to enterprise disk arrays, magnetic tapes have some disadvantages in terms of accessibility and read/write speeds. However, they still excel in key areas like longevity, cost efficiency and energy use. The table below summarizes some of the differences:
|Hard Disk Drive
|Access speed (read/write)
|Slower sequential access
|Faster random access
|30 years (or more) typical
|3-5 years typical
|Up to 60TB per cartridge (compressed)
|Up to 20TB per drive
|Cost per GB stored
|Very low (no electricity when idle)
|Higher electricity needs 24/7
This comparison shows why tape and disk storage tend to complement each other in the data center. Tape provides dense, inexpensive long-term storage while disk provides faster access to active data.
Magnetic Tape Format Standards
There are competing standards that define magnetic tape formats from different vendors and organizations. Some of the main standards include:
- Linear Tape-Open (LTO) – An open standards format developed by technology companies like IBM, HP, Quantum and others. LTO is the most popular tape format.
- Oracle Tape Storage (T10000) – Oracle’s proprietary tape format featuring high capacity and performance.
- IBM 3592 – High-capacity enterprise tape drives from IBM.
- TS1150 – An enterprise tape drive standard by Oracle and Hewlett-Packard.
- Digital Linear Tape (DLT) – An older tape tech originally developed by Digital Equipment Corporation.
Each standard defines attributes like tape cartridge physical form factors, data encoding methods, track layout, and read/write heads. Within a standard, generations improve capacity, speeds and other capabilities over time. The LTO standard covers widely used single-reel tape drives for backup, archiving and big data storage applications.
Key Magnetic Tape Technologies
There are some core technologies that enable modern magnetic tapes to continue serving as a high-capacity storage medium:
- Dual-coat magnetic particles – This tape formulation uses particles with a magnetic coating and a diamond-like hard coating for durability.
- Giant magnetoresistive (GMR) heads – Advanced read/write heads using GMR technology for detecting tiny magnetic changes on tapes.
- Barium ferrite (BaFe) particles – This material enables magnetic storage densities up to 425 Gb/inch2 in modern tape.
- Multi-channel servo format – Servo bands that allow the tape head to stay aligned with data tracks during high speed operation.
- Advanced tape guiding – Guide rollers and tape path features that enable precise head-to-tape alignment.
These kinds of advances allow continued enhancements to areal density and tape capacities over time. Higher GB/cartridge capacities also lower the long-term TCO of tape storage.
Magnetic Tape Storage Challenges
While magnetic tape continues to evolve and maintain advantages for plenty of use cases, it also comes with some downsides and challenges:
- Sequential-only access – Tapes can only be read or written sequentially from start to finish, not directly accessed like disk.
- Slow seek times – Seeking to different positions on tape is much slower than disk seeks.
- Bulkier media – Single tape cartridges can store huge data volumes, but are bulkier than tiny solid state drives.
- Environmental controls needed – Tape media life is highly dependent on storage conditions like temperature and humidity.
- Tape degradation – Tape coatings and materials degrade slowly over decades, requiring data to be rewritten to new media.
These limitations mean tape is focused only on use cases needing high-capacity sequential access, like backups and archives. The infrastructure for robots, clean rooms, and environmental controls also adds overhead for large tape libraries. But for the right applications, magnetic tape remains a highly cost-effective storage technology.
Magnetic Tape Data Density Roadmap
Are there limits to how far magnetic tape data densities can continue to scale? Storage industry experts see ongoing room for improvement over the next decade and beyond. Some recent tech demonstrations provide a glimpse of the potential path for tape tech evolution:
- 201 Gb/inch2 – In 2018, Fujifilm tested record areal density in the lab using advanced techniques like 126nm barium ferrite particles and scanning tunneling microscopy for ultra-precise tape formation.
- 333 Gb/inch2 – Sony and IBM scientists revealed an advanced prototype tape using sputtered magnetic tape layers instead of particles, enabling ultra-dense capacity.
- 317 Gb/inch2 – In 2020, Fujifilm used Strontium ferrite magnetic particles to set a new barium-free density record.
This shows ongoing advancement of tape media technology. With new approaches like using magnetic thin films instead of particles, there is still room to enhance density, capacity and performance in future tape generations. Many experts see a path to continue scaling magnetic tape up to capacities of 100+ TB per cartridge in the next 10-20 years.
While tape has been used in data storage for over half a century, it continues to evolve and offer unique advantages. Key strengths like high capacity, low TCO, energy efficiency and longevity make tape highly beneficial for backup, archives and big data storage. Advancements in media, read/write heads and other technologies will help magnetic tape continue serving these use cases for the foreseeable future despite the rise of flash and cloud storage.