The Sticking Power of Tape Storage in the Age of Big Data

Brian Truskowski is the General Manager of IBM System Storage and Networking, IBM Systems and Technology Group. He is responsible for strategy, product development, marketing, sales support, and program profitability for IBM’s storage and networking businesses.


Sometimes perception really is reality. And such is the case with Big Data.

According to researchers at IDC, more than 1.8 zettabytes of digital information was generated around the world in 2011 – a number that grew by a factor of nine in just five years, and one that is expected to double every two years going forward. Whether you view it in practical terms (data volumes), or the abstract (insights derived from those volumes) – the perceptions that Big Data is big and a growing concern for organizations large and small are real.

How the industry and the world reached this point is a long and varied story, filled with innumerable inventors and innovators, wizards of business and finance, and a market place hungry for better, faster, and affordable technology.

But if we were tasked to identify a point in history that served as a moment that changed the direction of computer systems, it’d be hard to argue against the significance of the first magnetic tape storage system.

While there was a great deal of experimentation going on in the early days of the computer industry – and while there have been a great number of innovations since – it’s fair to say that the digital storage industry as we know it today would not have occurred without an innovation created by a team of IBM engineers 60 years ago. The innovation enabled the massive calculating machines of the day to save their results digitally on reels of magnetic tape instead of on punch cards, creating entirely new ways to view and gain insight from, digital information.

Challenges of Storage

To understand the value of this innovation, it’s important to remember that during the 1940s and 50s calculating and processing wasn’t the challenge any longer, but rather storing the results of the calculations. During those early years, the only recordable techniques for the massive calculating systems involved “physical media” – hard copy books, paper, and punch cards. It was becoming clear that as these systems gained performance their storage solutions were not sustainable.

IBM engineers turned to a newer technology of the day, magnetic tape, for answers. The technology, which had been used to capture audio, held promise for the hulking computing systems, but was just not durable enough. When large reels of it were applied for capturing the computer data, the tape drives’ powerful motors, which abruptly started and stopped, easily snapped the tape.

Magnetic Tape Improvements

IBM engineers tackled the breakage problem head-on. And on May 21, 1952, when the company released its first production computer, the IBM 701, it also released an accompanying storage system that represented a breakthrough in magnetic tape. The IBM 726 was a 935-pound floor-standing behemoth that solved the breakage problem through the use of a “vacuum column” which created a buffer of loose tape between starts and stops. This U-shaped loop of loose tape allowed the tape to better absorb the extremely fast starts and stops of the system.

The vacuum column innovation was not only a success, but it was adopted by most high-performance tape drive manufacturers, making it one of the most widely used computer technologies of the 20th century. The technology became so prevalent that the image of the start and stop, reel-to-reel tape system, became the iconic, albeit unofficial, image that would symbolize the “computer” for an entire generation in news and entertainment.

Researchers Still Pushing Boundaries

Today, magnetic tape technologies and processes have advanced to truly astounding levels. For example, back in 1952, our IBM 726 had a capacity of 2.3MB. A single tape cartridge today can hold up to 4TB, or about two million times the capacity. One of the reasons for that kind of jump is the great work that has been done over the years, and continues unabated in research facilities around the globe. In 2009, for example, scientists at IBM Research in Zurich broke the magnetic tape density record by recording data onto an advanced prototype tape at a density of 29.5 billion bits per square inch (See this  YouTube video for details). This kind of advance could lead to a single tape cartridge holding as much as 35TB of uncompressed data.

Other advances like IBM Linear Tape File System (LTFS) which brought dramatic ease of use capabilities to tape management, such as drag-and-drop, and the tagging of files for more intuitive searching, among other things, have led organizations like T3Media to turn to tape to tackle Big Data. T3Media (formerly Thought Equity Motion) is a provider of cloud-based video management and licensing services that has more than 10 million hours of content under management. In addition to turning to tape for capacity, LTFS management, and reliability, T3Media is also saving considerable costs due to tape’s inherent energy savings. Unlike spinning hard drives, which must remain powered on, tape systems only power up when activated, and as a result offer a much lower carbon footprint.

Tape Playing Renewed Role

The challenges of 2012 are not what they were in 1952. Today, game-changing dynamics such as social media, mobile computing, regulation, and yes, Big Data, are all intersecting to create a digital traffic jam of epic proportions. By some accounts, the amount of information needed to be digitally stored will exceed 8 zettabytes by 2015. These trends and forecasts are forcing every industry to look at their storage infrastructures more carefully than ever before. And for many, tape is playing a significant, strategic and renewed role.

But to be sure, the businesses that succeed will be those that leverage the most strategic storage technologies available – from advanced tape to solid state, and from virtualization to the cloud – to increase efficiency, minimize risk, lower costs, improve access, and strengthen security. It will also be those that exploit solutions that offer greater data classification, because not all data is created equal nor does it maintain the same relevance over time.

That is the path to this new frontier of storage, this new era of smarter computing, including smarter storage.

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