Magnetic Tape for Data Storage: History & Definition

Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

How did magnetic tape storage evolve over the years as a data storage medium? A brief timeline will be provided, as well as a discussion of the different tape technologies and current updates.

Magnetic Tape

'Tape is dead! Long live tape!' Were you around in the 80s when cassette tapes were all the rage? People still say 'mixed tape' sometimes when referring to playlists they make or CDs they give each other. Though the cassette tape has fallen out of favor, it was neither the first nor the last device to use magnetic tape for storage.

Magnetic tape
magnetic tape image

A magnetic tape, in computer terminology, is a storage medium that allows for data archiving, collection, and backup. At first, the tapes were wound in wheel-like reels, but then cassettes and cartridges came along, which offered more protection for the tape inside.

One side of the tape is coated with a magnetic material. Data on the tape is written and read sequentially. Finding a specific record takes time, because the machine has to read every record in front of it. Most tapes are used for archival purposes, rather than ad-hoc writing/reading.

Data is written into 'tracks' on the medium: Some run along the edge of the tape (linear recording), while others are written diagonally (helical recording). Older magnetic tapes used 8 tracks, while more modern ones can handle 128 or more tracks.

A Faster Tape: Linear Tape File System (LTFS)

The Linear Tape File System (LTFS) mimics random access attributes of hard disks and has brought about a revolution in tape backup, in the age of huge files and big data. By storing metadata about an object separate from the object itself, it increases access and retrieval times. LTFS is an 'open standard', meaning is not proprietary, or owned by anyone. This allows different vendors, architectures, and systems the ability to use the technology.

Linear Tape File Systems have brought a huge leap forward in storage capacity. IBM and Fujifilm unveiled an LTO tape that can store up to 220 Terabytes of data! This is a significant increase over the technologies mentioned previously, and even from the first prototypes of LTFS.

Benefits and Disadvantages

Although magnetic tape is still viable, when compared to hard discs, external drives, or even cloud storage, they lack in speed of data retrieval. Although there are fewer tape drives around than disk drives, tape drives still perform a valuable function. Although disk drives can be faster, smaller, and hold more data, a physical tape is much more mobile.

A company can backup its data to tapes, remove them, and send by courier to off-site storage; a very important step for disaster recovery. In that regard, while disk drives can be used to read and write data at high speeds, tape disks are usually only for writing data. As such they are a great backup/archival tool.

Magnetic Tape: A Timeline

Below is a timeline that focuses on magnetic tape storage. Keep in mind that other technologies were also being developed (e.g., Flash drives, CD-ROM, etc.).

1890: Telegraphone

Valdemar Poulsen invented the 'Telegraphone.' It was the first real device that could record sounds using magnetic wire. The wire played back the sound.

A telegraphone use wire to record sound


The UNISERVO tape drive for the UNIVAC computer was the first tape storage device for a commercial computer.

1952: IBM 726

This tape used vacuum channel technology, allowing the tape to start and stop quickly. It could hold about 2 million bytes.

1964: DECTape

Used by Digital Equipment Corporation's (DEC) mini-computers, DECTape was a 3/4 inch tape that was laminated and the magnetic portion of the tape was protected in other layers. Intended for personal use.

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