Long Live Tape Storage

It’s really pretty amazing how tape storage has managed to stay relevant for well over half a century. Even with all of the advancements in technology, still nothing compares to tape in terms of stability, price, density or practicality.

In the early days of computing, all non-volatile data was stored on paper punch cards, which had 80 columns of data and a maximum reading speed of 100 cards per minute. Today, this would be the equivalent of reading about 133 characters every second.

Punchcards were slow, complicated and difficult to manage.

Then, in 1952, IBM announced the first tape system which they called the 726 Magnetic Tape Recorder. This new recording device was much simpler to manage, provided denser storage, and a fifty fold improvement in reading speed.

Shortly after, in 1956, the first disk storage systems were introduced. This launched a race for dominance which still continues today.

Of course, the fast reading speeds and random access capability have made hard disk storage the standard choice for storage of live data and short-term backup. But when it comes to long-term storage and archival storage, still nothing comes close to the practicality and cost-savings of tape.

First of all, tape offers the densest storage of any media. Slightly more than hard disk storage.

Also tape is far less expensive than any other storage method in terms of cost per GB. It’s about half the price of disk storage, and about 1/10 the cost of Blue Ray disk storage.

But there’s more to tape than just cost and density. Tape is also built to last.

  • Unlike a hard disk, tape storage separates the recording mechanism from the backup media. Backup tapes are designed to be very simple machines with very few moving parts. This means that they’re less likely to fail when you try to recover after long-term storage.
  • Tape is designed specifically for backup, and new tape formats are usually made to be reverse-compatible. If you save your archival data to tape today, you don’t need to worry about its readers, recorders or adapters becoming obsolete in 10 years. The same can’t be said for hard disks.
  • Tape is much more stable. If you scratch a tape, the entire device does not become unreadable. On the other hand, a head crash can cause an entire hard drive to become corrupted and unreadable.

Even with all of the advancements in solid state and optical storage, still nothing compares to tape. This is clearly a technology that’s probably here to stay for another half century.