IBM researchers eye 100TB tape drive

Big Blue developing 'nanopatterning' techniques that boost capacity of tape storage devices by 250 times

ALMADEN, CALIFORNIA -- IBM has begun work on new technologies designed to boost the capacity of tape storage devices by 250 times. Using "nanopatterning" techniques derived from the company's microprocessor division, researchers say they expect to one day build cartridges that can store as much as 100TB of data.

For years now, engineers have wrung more capacity out of tape storage by narrowing the tracks of magnetic material that store data on a spool of tape. With its current technology, IBM is now able to store 704 data tracks on the 1.27 centimeter (half-inch) wide tape used by IBM's TotalStorage 3580 LTO Generation 3 drives. This device can store about 400GB of data, but in order to store more than the 1TB of data that IBM is planning for its next-generation products, researchers say they will have to make some major changes to the way they manufacture tape.

That's where the microprocessor techniques come in. The Almaden researchers are now exploring ways they can use chip techniques such as reactive ion etching (a very precise method for putting patterns on film) or sputter deposition (a method of applying film in a very well-controlled way) to increase the storage capacity of tape.

The ultimate goal is to shrink the size of those tape tracks so that more data can be squeezed onto the same area of tape. "The track size now is in the neighborhood of about 10 microns," said Spike Narayan, a senior manager with IBM Research. His group of ten researchers hopes to shrink that size down to about 0.5 micron, or 500 nanometers, within the next five years. "This will carry us all the way to the 100TB regime," he said.

The problem that Narayan's researchers are grappling with has to do with the magnetic particles that record the 1's and 0's that make up storage data, and the way they cover today's tape media. Magnetic particles painted on today's tapes are about one micron -- one millionth of a meter -- in size, but in order to create data tracks that are smaller than one micron, new manufacturing processes will have to be developed.

Another problem is the placement of magnetic particles, which are randomly distributed on today's tape. As the tracks get smaller, particles will need to be placed in a very precise and predictable fashion to ensure that these ultra-small tracks will have magnetic material -- and not simply blank tape -- on which to record.

Essentially, IBM researchers plan to change the magnetic patterns on tape media from something that is large and uncontrolled to something much smaller and tightly controlled, Narayan said, meaning the tape of the future will have much smaller magnetic particles that are densely packed into rows, somewhat like dimples on a golf ball.

Though Narayan was reluctant to predict when IBM might bring its first 100TB tape devices to market, he said cartridges that can store a terabyte of data will hit the market within 18 months. The 3580 tapes can store 400GB of uncompressed data at present.

Sales of tape drives are expected to decline slightly over the next few years, dropping from $2 billion in sales this year, to $1.9 billion by 2008, according to IDC. However, the market for enterprise and midrange tape devices is on the rise, the Framingham, Massachusetts, research company said.

"This is not a technology that IBM is ignoring," Narayan said. "Over the past decade or so, from time to time people have questioned the future of storage tape technology. Every time it has come back."

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