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Is Magnetic Tape the Answer for Big Data?

The numbers regarding Big Data – which refers to the growth of data to the point it exceeds conventional database systems – are astounding, and as a result the tech world has been buzzing about the cloud and the role it will play in harnessing and storing big data. But European scientists believe there is a better solution: magnetic tape.

Wait – wasn’t magnetic tape supposed to go the way of the cassette tape? The buzz has been all about the cloud’s ability to back up and store huge amounts of data with more efficient recovery times. Yes and no. According to a very interesting look by, data tape is very much alive and vital.

In fact, CERN, the European particle-research organization outside Geneva that runs the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, believes that tape has advantages over disk, specifically speed when reading data and reliability.

big data computer

“With this Big Data issue, we may need to install another 16 megs of RAM.” (Photo: Jyoti Zaveri)

The Economist notes: “When a tape snaps, it can be spliced back together. The loss is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes—a bagatelle in information-technology circles. When a terabyte hard disk fails, by contrast, the result is usually that all the data on it are lost.”

Trends, at least in Europe, support the rebound of data tape, as the Economist reports that while tape sales have fallen since 2008, losing 14 percent of sales in 2012, sales are actually up 1 percent within the last quarter, with a 3 percent rise expected.

While here at The Data Vault we deal in tape as well as cloud backup, we’ve maintained that tape is still an essential tool for archiving while cloud solutions provide a superior answer to data recovery time objectives. A total restore that currently may take a week or more using tape can often be done in a few hours with certain cloud solutions.

Thus, a dual system may be the most effective and economic, wherein large amounts of “cold” data — information that does not have to be accessed instantaneously — is archived on tape, and “hot” data is accessible on disk, locally and/or via a cloud solution. The key point here, the Economist notes, is that an estimated 90 percent of Big Data is considered cold, and thus can be safely archived.

Interestingly, IBM is working on advancements in magnetic tape that would make it nearly a superhero in terms of storage and speed capabilities. Evangelos Eleftheriou of IBM and his team set a record in 2010 by demonstrating a data tape that can store 29.5 gigabits per square inch, or about 35 terabytes per cartridge.

The Economist reports Dr. Eleftheriou is now working on a tape that would store more than 100 TB per cartridge, and that he hopes a demo model will be ready by 2014.

For those who were just a year ago ready to write off data tape, computer scientists of the world have a message: Not so fast.


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