Sony's New Tech Could Enable 185TB Magnetic Tapes

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Sony has disclosed details about a future magnetic tape product that will be able to hold 185TB of data, or the equivalent of nearly 3,800 dual-layer Blu-ray discs, in a package the size of current-day cassettes. The tape material can store 148Gb per square inch, which is the world's highest areal recording density, according to the company.

The new tape would be able to store 72 times as much data per square inch as current magnetic tapes. Sony has achieved this using a new soft magnetic underlayer for tapes on which nano-scale particles can be deposited with uniform crystalline orientation. The process is carried out by using a "sputter method" of thin-film deposition, in which electrostatic discharges force Argon ions to collide with the magnetic substrate, forming the data layer. Sony's new magnetic crystals measure 7nm on average, whereas current-day crystals are "several tens of nanometers" in size, according to the company.

The main advance has been making the underlayer smooth, with a thickness of less than 5 micrometers. This allows crystals deposited by the vacuum sputter deposition process to lay more uniformly, and with less variation in size. Existing tape surfaces are rough, leading to non-uniform deposition, limiting the scope for developing increased densities. The record of 148Gb per square inch was achieved during experimentation, and further improvements are still possible.

Using the dimensions of a standard LTO Ultrium tape cartridge, Sony postulates that it will be possible to create 185TB cartridges with this new material. That amount of space would be enough to store as much music as 1,184 160GB iPods (which is more than anyone could listen to in their entire lifetime), although eventual products of this type would be aimed at massive-scale data centres, not personal use.

LTO (Linear Tape Open) cartridges are widely used for long-term data archival and backups today, even though similar cassettes have fallen out of favour for consumer applications. The relatively low read and write speeds and massive latency due to the linear nature of tape spools make cartridges unsuitable for direct storage or server applications. With LTO-6, the current standard, standard sized cartridges can hold 2.5TB. Cartridges themselves are relatively affordable, but the tape drives required to read and write to them can be prohibitively expensive.

With the massive explosion of data stored in cloud storage facilities, according to Sony, constant backups have become more and more difficult to maintain, and customers still need the ability to recover them rapidly following any kind of disaster. Organisations that need to transport large amounts of data between locations would also be able to use the new products.

Sony has not detailed any plans to launch products based on its new technology, or the speeds, capacities and price levels it might be aiming for. The company has stated that further research on the materials is ongoing, but there is no information about when actual commercial products might make it to markets.

In March this year, Sony and Panasonic had announced a new Archival Disk format, which would allow for 300GB to be stored on a single disc. The plans called for evolution of the standard to allow 500GB and then 1TB per disc, while retaining backward compatibility.

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