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Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we used to store all our data on magnetic tape. Yet tape storage is still a very cost-effective way to store rarely accessed data, and a new breakthrough from IBM that dramatically increases the capacity of tape storage might make for lower cloud storage costs if it catches on in mass production.

IBM researchers have figured out a way to store 201 GBs of data on a square inch of tape, which as Ars Technica reports could allow partners like Sony Storage Media to create 330TB tape drives the size of the palm of your hand. Those drives, coupled together in massive arrays inside data centers, would keep tape alive as a storage option for people running their own data centers and could also encourage cloud providers that have targeted tape users to lower cloud storage prices.

Most data centers rely on solid-state storage (SSD) drives for day-to-day storage because they are so much faster than tape drives at retrieving and storing data, but they are more expensive to acquire and maintain. Tape storage is almost as old as computing itself, and it is still used for what’s referred to as “cold storage,” or data that doesn’t need to be accessed very frequently, such as financial records. But there have been concerns that tape storage is reaching a practical limit in capacity, and as the Internet of Things becomes reality, data storage needs will explode.

IBM and Sony’s breakthrough involves the use of “sputter deposition,” a method of adding layers to a material that has been used for years to make hard drives but hasn’t been added to tape before. It increases the storage density of the tape, and a new lubricant developed for the tape makes sure it moves smoothly at speed.

It could take quite some time before this technology makes it into commercial products, and it won’t be a cheaper alternative to modern tape storage for a while until the production kinks are worked out. But it could keep tape storage alive as a cost-effective storage medium for several more years.

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