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Data Centers Turn to Tape as Global Need Outpaces Hard Drive Capacity

October 5, 2023

Hard drive capacities continue to improve thanks to new technologies like heat assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) and shingled magnetic recording (SMR). But areal densities remain limited by the physics of magnetic storage — and while 120-terabyte hard drives may exist in the near future, that’s still not quite enough.

The problem: Globally, consumers are demanding more and more storage, but not for their personal computers. Every online interaction requires data, and in some cases, that data must be retained indefinitely. More people store data on “the cloud,” but the cloud is simply another term for high-end data centers, which must maintain a sufficient amount of storage media to remain operational. 

According to one estimate, the global need for data storage will exceed 175 zettabytes (ZB) by 2025. A zettabyte is equivalent to a trillion gigabytes (GB) or a million petabytes (PB).   

In 2022, scientists warned that a “global data storage crisis” would occur by mid-decade.

Researchers at Aston University predicted a “data storage crunch,” which could hobble cloud services and impact global economies. 

However, improvements in storage technology could prevent that crunch from occurring. And for many data centers, hard drives aren’t the only option. 

This year, the Linear Tape Open (LTO) Project introduced LTO Ultrium 9 (LTO-9), an open format with an 18 TB native capacity and up to 45 TB of compressed capacity. The group plans to double the capacity of each successive generation of LTO Ultrium, passing the 1 PB barrier by 2032 with the release of LTO-14.

Globally, tape shipments have increased as hard drive sales have dropped. 

LTO’s annual media shipment report showed a 40% increase in tapes shipped in 2021, and the LTO Program estimates that adoption will continue to improve over the next several years. 

For data centers, tape cartridges provide several distinct advantages:

  • Tapes provide resistance to ransomware and other malware threats (with proper implementation).
  • Modern tape formats support file systems that allow data to be accessed quickly. LTFS (Linear Tape File System) enables files to be read and edited similarly to files on a flash drive or hard drive. 
  • LTO and other tape formats support write-level encryption, an important security control for potentially sensitive data.
  • Tape media is generally much less expensive than hard drives on a per-gigabyte basis. LTO-9 cartridges currently sell for about $0.004/GB. 
  • While no storage media is perfect, tapes are more reliable than hard drives for long-term storage. 

Of course, data tapes also present challenges. Enterprises must regularly migrate from older formats to newer formats, which occasionally necessitates data translation and conversion. LTO-9 is fully backward-compatible with LTO-8, but for migration projects, LTO-9 drives are limited to the read/write speeds of the previous generation.

But even with these drawbacks, tape cartridges are well positioned to address the global data crunch — and ensure that data centers continue to hum along into the 2030s.

Professional Data Services for Tape Migration, Data Recovery, and More provides tape migration, disaster recovery, and other resources for data centers and enterprises. 

With an extensive library of legacy and current-gen tape hardware, we help enterprises develop robust strategies for backups, archives, and day-to-day operations. Our laboratories are fully equipped to recover data from damaged tapes and convert data between formats — regardless of file system, backup software version, and other factors. 

To learn more about our tape migration and data recovery services, call 1-800-237-4200 or request a free consultation online.