Why are magnetic tapes no longer used?

Magnetic tape has had a long history of usage for data storage and was once the most common media for secondary storage on computers. Though magnetic tape technology itself dates back to 1928 when it was invented in Germany, its usage for data storage began in 1951 when it was used in the UNIVAC I computer (Wikipedia). Magnetic tapes then became widely used for secondary storage on mainframe computers throughout the 1950s-1970s. The peak usage period was in the 1980s-1990s when magnetic tapes were commonly used for backup, data transfer, and storage by enterprises. However, usage started to decline in the late 1990s and 2000s with the rise of hard disk drives, cloud storage, and solid state drives. Today, magnetic tapes are rarely used except for some niche long-term archival storage applications.

Advantages of Magnetic Tape

Magnetic tape has several key advantages that made it an extremely popular storage medium for decades. First and foremost is that it provides very inexpensive storage. Magnetic tape cartridges are relatively cheap to manufacture compared to other storage media. This makes tape ideal for archiving and backing up large volumes of data. According to Is Magnetic Tape Still Used Today?, magnetic tape remains a cost-effective option for organizations dealing with massive datasets.

Another major advantage of magnetic tape is its long shelf life. Tape cartridges can store data for 30 years or more if stored properly. The magnetic coatings used on tape are very stable over time. This gives magnetic tape the ability to be used for long-term archival storage. Additionally, tape cartridges are portable since they are compact and lightweight. This makes transporting large datasets easy compared to bulky hard drives or racks of disks.

Disadvantages of Magnetic Tape

Magnetic tape had several key disadvantages that led to its decline, including slow data transfer speeds, risk of data corruption, and difficulty accessing specific data. According to Shredall, tape drives have very slow data transfer rates compared to hard disk drives and solid state drives. This makes tasks like backing up large amounts of data very time consuming. Tape is also susceptible to damage and corruption. If the magnetic tape comes into contact with magnetic fields or physical shock, stored data can become corrupted or lost. Salvaging data from damaged tapes can be difficult and expensive.

Another downside of tape is the linear access which makes it hard to access specific data quickly. As explained by Quora users, tapes must be wound to locate the desired data, unlike random access storage like hard drives. This makes locating and retrieving a specific file or piece of information very cumbersome compared to newer storage mediums. Overall, while tape had advantages like portability and longevity, the disadvantages of slow speeds, vulnerability to damage, and linear access led to its decline.

The Rise of Hard Drives

Hard disk drives (HDDs) began emerging as an alternative storage technology to tapes in the 1950s. According to the History of hard disk drives – Wikipedia, IBM introduced the first commercial HDD called the IBM 350 Disk Storage Unit in 1956. It offered major advantages over magnetic tapes:

  • Faster access speeds – HDDs allowed random access to data, while tapes required sequential access.
  • Greater storage capacities – Early HDDs stored 5MB of data, expanding to gigabytes in the 80s and terabytes today.
  • Non-linear data access – HDDs allowed accessing any data block without rewinding or fast-forwarding like tapes.

HDD capacities and performance improved rapidly through innovations like giant magnetoresistive heads and PRML encoding. By the 90s, HDDs overtook tapes as the dominant storage medium for PCs and servers due to their superior speed, capacity and flexibility.

The Rise of Cloud Storage

Cloud storage emerged as a popular alternative to physical data storage, offering benefits like virtually unlimited scalable storage, data accessibility from anywhere, and built-in data redundancy. Cloud providers like Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Amazon S3 have tapped into the demand for accessing files across devices and sharing large files. By 2019, the cloud storage market already reached a size of over $50 billion, and is predicted to expand at a CAGR of 24% from 2022 to 2029, according to market research from Globenewswire [1]. The demand is driven by enterprises shifting data storage to the cloud, as well as consumers using personal cloud storage. Unlimited scalability accommodates growing storage needs without expanding physical infrastructure. Cloud storage enables accessing data from any device with an internet connection. Built-in redundancy through geographically distributed data centers prevents data loss in case of failure.

The Rise of Solid State Drives

Solid state drives (SSDs) started gaining popularity as an alternative to magnetic tapes and hard disk drives in the 2000s due to their faster read and write speeds. SSDs use flash memory and have no moving parts, allowing them to retrieve data much faster than traditional storage drives. This results in lower latency and faster access times.

SSDs are also more compact, durable, and energy efficient than magnetic tape and HDDs. Their solid state design makes them resistant to physical shock, allowing SSDs to operate in harsh environments where traditional drives would fail. The lack of moving parts also reduces power consumption and heat generation.

According to research, the growth of SSD usage in data centers is driven by their faster speeds and lower latency [1]. SSDs are well suited for data centers focused on Big Data analytics, artificial intelligence, and other latency-sensitive workloads. The SSD market is expected to continue expanding as organizations transition from disk to flash memory storage [2].

Declining Tape Drive Production

The market for tape drives has experienced a sustained decline in recent years as drive makers have left the space or reduced production. According to a 2003 study from Gartner, the total worldwide market for tape drives declined for the third consecutive year in 2002 (source: https://www.storagenewsletter.com/2023/11/29/history-2003-third-consecutive-year-of-decline-for-ww-tape-drive-market/). Major players like IBM and StorageTek cut back drive manufacturing during this period.

This decline is partly due to a lack of major innovations in tape drive technology in the 2000s. Companies shifted their R&D focus to faster-growing storage mediums like hard disk drives and flash memory. Without groundbreaking new tape drive capabilities to entice buyers, sales slowed (source: https://www.theregister.com/2021/08/19/lto_tape_sales_drop/).

Tape has also faced fierce competition from newer technologies like cloud storage services and solid state drives. As these options provide faster data access and more convenience, fewer organizations see tape as an essential part of their storage infrastructure. This changing landscape led tape drive makers to divert resources away from tape in favor of other growth opportunities.

Limited Use Cases Today

In the current era, magnetic tapes are mostly used for archival and backup purposes. While other storage mediums like hard drives and solid state drives have become preferred for primary storage, magnetic tape retains some key advantages for secondary data storage. Tape’s portability, longevity, and low cost make it well-suited for archiving rarely accessed data that still needs to be retained.

Magnetic tapes are still leveraged by some legacy mainframe systems as well. Mainframes often have substantial investments in tape libraries and standard practices built around them. So while new mainframe deployments are rare, existing ones continue relying on this tried and true storage medium.

There are also some niche roles for tape storage in modern data centers. When cost-effective offline storage is required for infrequently accessed data, magnetic tape libraries are still deployed. The linear nature of tape drives necessitates more time to access data, but the trade-off is substantially lower storage expenses compared to disk.

Overall, while magnetic tape has faded from mainstream primary storage uses, it continues to offer unique benefits that sustain it in backup, archival, and niche applications (IEEE).

The Future

Magnetic tape is unlikely to make a comeback as a mainstream data storage technology. As Thompson (2000) notes, physical limitations will prevent magnetic storage from advancing much further. While tape drives reached impressive capacities, the technology has nearly hit its theoretical limits. Even with improvements in areal density, magnetic tapes simply cannot compete with the convenience and performance of modern storage mediums.

Archival use of magnetic tape will also continue to decline. Cloud backup and networked server farms now provide more robust and secure options for long-term data preservation. Online archives have also reduced the need to store large quantities of infrequently accessed data offline. According to Wang et. al (2007), magnetic tape will become completely obsolete for archival use within the next decade.

In the long run, magnetic tape appears completely obsolete as a data storage technology. Driven by technological limitations and the availability of superior alternatives, magnetic media will likely vanish from mainstream use within the next decade.


In summary, the decline of magnetic tape for data storage has been driven by several key factors. Firstly, tapes had several disadvantages like low data access speeds, capacity limitations, and reliability issues that newer technologies improved upon. Secondly, the rise of hard disk drives, solid state drives, cloud storage, and other digital storage provided cheaper, faster, more convenient options for handling large amounts of data. Finally, declining tape drive production as companies exited the market limited availability and support. While tapes still fill some niche backup needs today, they have been largely replaced as a mainstream data storage medium.

Hard drives offered much higher capacities for primary storage needs. Cloud storage provided inexpensive, limitless capacity accessed easily online. Solid state drives delivered faster performance. These newer technologies drove tapes into narrow backup uses due to their portability, long shelf life, and offline nature. But for most applications, digital storage has proven far superior in speed, capacity, and accessibility.

In conclusion, magnetic tapes were once an innovative method for computer data storage, but technological advances have made them obsolete for most applications today. Their decline exemplifies the fast pace of progress in computer data storage technology.