The history of magnetic tape and computing: a 65-year-old marriage continues to evolve

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The history of magnetic tape is so long and so central to computing because tape has continuously evolved through new generations of technology.

November 7, 20187 mins
The History | Iron Mountain

Magnetic tape as a means of computer data storage has been used for nearly 65 years now. Many observers did not expect tape to survive; indeed, some naysayers are still under the mistaken impression that tape is a dying technology. However, the history of magnetic tape is so long and so central to computing because tape has continued to evolve through new generations of technology and through radical changes in its use.

Tape at the Dawn of Computing

The first means of storage for computers was the punch card. The punch card dates back to the 19th century, when it was used to store patterns for cloth-weaving machines and was later adapted to tabulators, such as the Hollerith Machines that were the predecessors to modern computers. When the first modern commercial computer, the UNIVAC I, was released in 1951, the inventors turned to magnetic tape to supplement the UNIVAC's meager internal storage. It was used as the primary input and output device for data and program storage. However, the history of magnetic tape predates computers. It began in 1928, when it was developed for audio storage and subsequently widely adapted in radio and the recording industry. UNIVAC inventors J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly chose wisely, since a single roll of magnetic tape could hold as much data as 10,000 punch cards. The evolution of magnetic tape had begun.

Tape in the Age of Networked Computing

In 1956, IBM announced the first hard disk drive. The ability to randomly access data on a hard disk drive made it the logical choice to replace tape. From its introduction in 1956 through 2010, the areal density of hard disk had ups and downs in terms of growth. However, at all points, it exceeded Moore's law with respect to compound annual growth rate. During the same period, a single tape reel grew from a capacity of 2.3 MB in 1952 to 4 TB in 2010, an increase of more than 2 million times .

The ability of tape density to exceed hard disk density during this period - plus the fact that tape remained an order of magnitude less expensive for this period of increased networked computing - accounted for its primary role for the past 30 years in providing backup and recovery for hard disk drives.

Did you know?

The world's data is doubling every two years.

Fast fact:

IBM and Fujifilm recently demonstrated a LTO tape with 220 TB of storage, representing a significant increase over the prototype of 154 TB demonstrated just about a year ago.


Tape in the Age of Big Data

The history of magnetic tape took a giant step forward in 2010 with the introduction of the Linear Tape File System (LTFS) open standard. LTFS was revolutionary in two respects. First, it separated the metadata about an object stored on the tape from the object itself. This enabled LTFS systems to emulate the random access attributes of hard disk drives. Indeed, when the LTFS metadata is stored on solid-state drives, the access times for retrieval of large objects stored on Linear Tape-Open (LTO) tapes is actually faster than what can be achieved by hard disk alone. This architecture is known as FLAPE, a conflagration of flash and tape. Second, LTFS and LTO are open standards, enabling multivendor architectures and migration from one vendor to another.


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The introduction of LTFS has been accompanied by an enormous leap in tape capacity. IBM and Fujifilm recently demonstrated a LTO tape with 220 TB of storage, as well as an integration with OpenStack, the leading open-source architecture for cloud computing. This represents a significant increase over the prototype of 154 TB demonstrated just about a year ago. This increased capacity, coupled with the reduced latency offered by LTFS, makes tape the perfect medium for archiving large, unstructured objects such as video, audio and graphics, the fastest-growing data segment.

The latest evolution of magnetic tape has maintained the currency of tape in leading-edge architectures. The largest cloud providers in the world - Amazon, Google and Microsoft - all use LTFS-attached tape libraries as part of their storage architectures. As we move into the Internet of Things era, tape backup is just as integral to computing now as it was at the dawn of computing.

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