Are you ready for the 185-terabyte cassette tape?

Gizmodo reports on the latest effort to refine an old technology until it becomes almost deliriously advanced: Sony’s new 185-terabyte tape cassettes.  That’s 18.5 gigabytes – three Blu-Ray discs worth of data – on every square inch of tape.  Of course, it’s not the same kind of tape we used to stuff into our Walkmans:

Sony’s technique, which will be discussed at today’s International Magnetics Conference in Dresden, uses a vacuum-forming technique called sputter deposition to create a layer of magnetic crystals by shooting argon ions at a polymer film substrate. The crystals, measuring just 7.7 nanometers on average, pack together more densely than any other previous method.

Shooting argon ions into a polymer substrate?  It seems so obvious in retrospect.  Why weren’t we doing that back when Flock of Seagulls was big?  We could have made one mix tape that would sit in our car stereos until it melted.

The trick to using this sort of data storage is that it only works for situation where information can be read and written in sequential fashion (not the kind of random access typical of memory chips or DVDs), and very slowly at that.  To pack three Blu-Rays into a square inch of tape, you’ve got to move the tape through its delicate read/write system at a snail’s pace.  That means the new technology will primarily be useful for the same thing magnetic tape is still widely used for: data backups.  

As The Verge explains, tapes are “cheaper, more power efficient, and more reliable than disk-based storage.”  Enormous storage systems can now be backed up onto a single cartridge – one of Sony’s new tapes could do the work of 74 standard backup cartridges.  Tape backup systems are actually a growth industry at the moment – on track for 26 percent growth over the past year – so whenever Sony manages to commercialize the new technology, there will be customers lined up for it.  You probably won’t have one in your house, but with the increasing popularity of online “cloud” applications and data storage, there’s a good chance tape systems are protecting some of your data, somewhere on the great electronic frontier.


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