Tape is here to rescue big data

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Vinyl made a comeback, and now it’s the turn of tape. But this isn’t your mother’s music cassette that’s having a moment. While tape technology may have largely disappeared from our daily lives, it turns out that it’s critical to the cloud. Tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft and some of the world’s biggest research institutions, like NASA, all use tape to securely archive data.

Mark Lantz runs a team at IBM’s research lab in Zurich, dedicated to advancing tape technology. In 2017, Lantz’s team figured out how to store 201 gigabytes of data on one square inch of tape. That means one reel of tape no bigger than your palm can store as much data as you could save on 330 laptops. Breakthroughs like Lantz’s have nudged tape ahead of hard drives, which have struggled to keep up with the explosive growth in data. 

Magnetic tape has a few key advantages over other storage technologies when it comes to big data. In an increasingly digital world where the cloud is vulnerable to hackers and cyberattacks, tape offers secure offline storage. Tape also has price working in its favor. A 1-terabyte portable hard drive costs about $50, but a tape cartridge with the same capacity only costs $5.

Old technologies don’t always die. Sometimes they just find new ways to be relevant. Watch the video above where Quartz News travels to IBM in Zurich and CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, in Geneva, to learn how tape is key to the future of data storage, and how one issue could derail that progress.

Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.

Click here for previous stories.