IBM and Sony’s new palm-sized tape prototype can store 330 terabytes of data

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Why it matters to you

This development demonstrates how older technology standards can achieve new relevance as research advances.

IBM has developed a brand-new storage prototype built on magnetic tape technology and the amount of information it can store is staggering. Offering nearly 10 times the storage space of the best tape available in 2010, the new development nearly doubles the aerial density of even 2015’s best offering, making it the densest tape storage development by a long shot.

Despite the fact that consumers have transitioned through several storage technologies over the past few decades to the high-speed, flash-based drives of today, tape still finds usage in long-term and high-capacity storage. While commercially available magnetic tape cartridges offer up to 15TB of storage, IBM and Sony have created a new standard that’s capable of storing as much as 330TB in a much smaller form factor.

To give that some context, IBM suggests that such a cartridge would be able to store as many as 330 million books in a form factor the same size as your palm. The last generation of the same sort of tape technology could ‘only’ handle 220 million.

The new magnetic tape standard required the development of two new technologies. It uses a new lubricant layer, which keeps the tape running smoothly, while a new magnetic layer was “sputtered,” or ‘painted’ onto the tape itself, making the storage layer incredibly thin and dense (thanks Ars).

IBM’s role in this development was in reading the new standard. Its new read head is built much like those found in a hard drive, which as Ars highlights, makes sense, since the sputtering manufacturing technique is much more common in hard drives. That read head, combined with the lubrication layer that keeps the tape moving quickly, is what allows the tracking of the new, microscopic magnetic grains of the tape.

The only downside to this is that it’s far from a readily available technology yet. Commercial drives still have yet to adopt many of the developments made in tape storage technology over the past few years, so we’re likely several more years away from seeing IBM and Sony’s new standard released into the wild. Any organization looking to leverage it, too, would likely require a brand-new tape reader, which would be a very expensive proposition considering the new standards employed.