Tomorrow’s hard drives, descended from… cassette tapes?

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A stack of compact cassette tapes

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Data-hungry users and services may soon have a new way to store terabytes of data, but the new tech isn’t solid-state memory like your tablet or spinning hard disks like your desktop. It has more in common with the venerable cassette tape.

Anyone who has been working with computers for years will be able to tell you that magnetic tape drives are far from new. Many are even still in use as backup machines. Unfortunately, the setups can be bulky, and ordinary hard drives have been increasing in capacity, making tape drives less viable as an option.

But researchers at Fujifilm and IBM have created a new tape-based drive that has 10 times the space of today’s largest disk drives in a case just a little bigger than a compact cassette.

The advance came partially from coating the tape in barium ferrite and improving the drive’s reading and writing mechanisms, allowing far more data to be magnetically stored on a piece of tape. Now Fujifilm and IBM can store 35 terabytes of data into a cartridge that measures about 10-by-10-by-2 centimeters. And the companies expect that within a few years, they’ll be able to raise that number to 100 terabytes.

The research was done because of the huge amount of data expected to be produced by the Square Kilometer Array. The immense radio telescope that expects to pump out a petabyte every day – that’s a thousand terabytes, or a million gigabytes.

Not only would using hard disks to store this data require far more drives, but it would also require far more power: tape drives are very efficient, since they only require power when they are being accessed, while hard disks must spin at high RPMs constantly. Tape can also be stored cheaply, lasting potentially for decades without intervention.

It’s not all good news: unlike hard disks, tape drives don’t have their read-write mechanisms built in. Just like a regular cassette tape, they require another device to read them, which means if you need the data on a cartridge, you can’t just spin it up and have it send you that data – you need to physically retrieve the cartridge and put it in a reader. Automating this process is something the team is working on, but this does mean that tape storage will continue to be a niche technology for now.

The Square Kilometer Array and its new storage method are scheduled to be in full operation by 2024. By that time, the world of computer storage will surely have changed quite a bit, but for now the work by IBM and Fujifilm is quite impressive.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.

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