IBM begins development work on 100Tbyte tape drive

IBM has begun work on new technologies designed to boost the capacity of tape storage devices by 250 times. Using...

IBM has begun work on new technologies designed to boost the capacity of tape storage devices by 250 times. Using "nanopatterning"  techniques derived from the company's microprocessor division, researchers said they expect to be able to build cartridges that can store as much as 100Tbytes of data.

Previously engineers have wrung more capacity out of tape storage by narrowing the tracks of magnetic material that store data. IBM is now able to store 704 data tracks on the 1.27cm tape used by IBM's Totalstorage 3580 LTO Generation 3 drives. This device can store about 400Gbytes of data, but to store more than the 1Tbyte of data IBM is planning for its next-generation products, researchers said they will have to make some major changes to the way they manufacture tape.

The Almaden researchers are exploring ways they can use chip techniques such as reactive ion etching (a precise method for putting patterns on film) or sputter deposition (a method of applying film in a controlled way) to increase the storage capacity of tape.

The ultimate goal is to shrink the size of the tape tracks so that more data can be squeezed onto the same area. "The track size is about 10 microns," said Spike Narayan, a senior manager with IBM Research.  His group of 10 researchers hopes to shrink that size down to about 0.5 micron, or 500 nanometers, within the next five years. "This will carry us all the way to the 100Tbyte regime," he said.

The problem that Narayan's researchers are grappling with has to do with the magnetic particles that record the 1's and 0's that make up data, and the way they cover today's tape media. Magnetic particles painted on today's tapes are about one micron - one millionth of a metre - in size, but to create data tracks that are smaller, new manufacturing processes will have to be developed.

Another problem is the placement of magnetic particles, which are randomly distributed on the tape. As the tracks get smaller, particles will need to be placed in a precise and predictable fashion to ensure these ultra-small tracks will have magnetic material - and not simply blank tape - on which to record.

Though Narayan was reluctant to predict when IBM might bring its first 100Tbyte tape devices to market, he said cartridges that can store a terabyte of data will hit the market within 18 months. The 3580 tapes store 400Gbytes of uncompressed data at present.

Sales of tape drives are expected to decline slightly over the next few years, dropping from £1.3bn in sales this year to £9.8m by 2008, according to analyst firm IDC. However, the market for enterprise and mid-range tape devices is on the rise, the company said.

"This is not a technology IBM is ignoring," Narayan said. "Over the past decade or so, people have questioned the future of storage tape technology. Every time it has come back.

Robert McMillan writes for the IDG News Service

This was last published in December 2004

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