When thinking about storage technology in 2020, one rarely thinks about tape media. However, magnetic tape media is critical to archiving data. As data demands continually increase, Fujifilm is working on a new technology that will be a massive breakthrough in linear tape-based storage, offering up to 400TB of storage in a single drive.

As PetaPixel notes, tape-based storage technology is primarily Linear Tape-Open (LTO). Currently, LTO is in its eighth generation, LTO-8, and has a maximum capacity of 12TB, far below the maximum capacity Fujifilm is developing. LTO-9, slated to arrive later this year, maxes out at ‘only’ 24TB. A 12TB (native) Fujifilm Ultrium LTO-8 drive is shown in the leading image of this article.

The driving force behind this potential leap in magnetic tape storage capacity to 400TB is due to a new coating on the tape. LTO-8, and upcoming LTO-9 drives, feature tape coated with Barium Ferrite (BaFe). Down the line, Fujifilm is intending to use Strontium Ferrite (SrFe) instead, due to its superior magnetic qualities. In a 2018 document on LTO, Fujifilm states ‘…the majority of the magnetic properties of SrFe are superior to those of BaFe, which will enable us to reach a higher level of performance whilst further reducing the size of the particles.’ With respect to reducing the size of particles, this is no easy feat. Fujifilm continues, ‘…it is extremely important to carry out a very precise control of the nucleation of the particles.’

In this image from a Fujifilm document about LTO development, you can see a comparison of particle sizes over time. On the left is an LTO-7 tape, using Barium Ferrite coating. In the middle, a tech demo from 2015 shows smaller particles using an improved BaFe coating. Finally, on the right, you can see the difference in particle sizes using Strontium Ferrite. Click on the image for a better view. Image credit: Fujifilm, 2018

In the same document, Fujifilm states that it began research on SrFe in 2012 and has performed research and development solely on their own. In 2015, Fujifilm achieved a 220TB coating on a single tape and as of 2018, believed they could further reduce the volume of particles by 40 percent. The technology is still quite far from retail availability, however, as Fujifilm has aimed to introduce SrFe LTO by 2027. As per Blocks & Files, Fujifilm’s SrFe tape media has achieved 224Gbit per square inch, which results in the 400TB capacity mentioned earlier.

It’s easy for many of us to ignore the importance and proliferation of magnetic tape storage. In a 2018 article by Bloomberg Businessweek, director of technology services for the data management firm Iron Mountain Inc., said magnetic tapes are “part of what’s keeping the world running.’ At that time, Iron Mountain had stored more than 85 million square tapes across 210 warehouses and old mines. The article continues, ‘Although the century-old technology has disappeared from most people’s daily view, magnetic tape lives on as the preferred medium for safely archiving critical cloud data.’ Even as our storage technology becomes more modern from a front-facing perspective, a fundamental foundation of it all remains magnetic tapes.

Availability, performance and the overall lack of traditional usability of LTO cassettes render the technology far outside the purview of most photographers and videographers. However, the technological advancements of Fujifilm, and the only other tape media producer, Sony, are critical for the long-term storage and safety of our data, especially data we want to be backed up to cloud servers around the world. It’s amazing how far a storage technology originating in the 1950s continues to be pushed over time.

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