Death of the cassette tape much exaggerated

The widening gap between the amount of data the world produces and our capacity to store it is giving a new lease of life to the humble cassette tape.

Although consumers have abandoned the audio cassette in favour of the ubiquitous iPod, organisations with large amounts of data, from patient records to capacity-hungry video archives, have continued to use tape as a cheap and secure storage medium.

Researchers at IBM are trying to keep this 60-year old technology relevant for at least the next decade and they are getting help from rising energy costs, which are forcing companies to look for cheaper alternatives to stacks of power-hungry hard drives.

Evangelos Eleftheriou and his colleagues at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, have developed a cassette just 10 cm by 10cm by 2cm that can hold about 35 terabytes of data, the equivalent of a library with 400 kilometres of bookshelves.

It is really the greenest storage technology, Eleftheriou told Reuters. Tape at rest, consumes literally zero power.

Unlike hard drive storage devices, which have to be on continuously, tape systems only consume power when data is being read or recorded, giving them a carbon footprint a fraction that of their disc-based counterparts.

Latency is the biggest disadvantage. Tapes have to be retrieved, usually by a robotic selector, and then loaded into a reading device.

But for much of the world's archived data, access time is not critical. From legal archives and company records kept to comply with legislation like the Sarbanes Oxley Act in the United States, to data on traffic flow and weather patterns, keeping secure copies is more important than instant access.

If you have big data then you have really big backups, said Eleftheriou.

This is borne out by an estimate from consultancy Coughlin Associates that about 400 exabytes, equal to 20 million times the content of U.S. Library of Congress, is currently stored on tape.

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