Magnetic tape has a surprisingly promising future

THE WHIRR of spooling magnetic tape is more likely to evoke feelings of nostalgia than technological awe. Yet tape remains important for data storage, with millions of kilometres of the stuff coiled up in the world’s data centres. Indirectly, says Mark Lantz of IBM, most computer users thus rely on tape every day.

Though tape may seem archaic, it is still getting better. In 2015 Dr Lantz’s team unveiled a version capable of squirrelling away 123 gigabytes per square inch (19Gb per square centimetre, but tapemakers still use imperial units). In 2017 they reached 201Gb/in2. And on December 15th they revealed a design that has a density of 317Gb/in2. That rate of growth is unmatched by any of tape’s competitors.

Tape’s heyday as a data-storage medium for computers was in the 1950s. Hard disks, introduced in 1956, were quickly seen as superior because they required no time-consuming spooling. Decades of selective…

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