IBM has quietly introduced a new tape drive, the TS1170, that can read and write on a new enterprise tape data cartridge, the 3592 JF manufactured by Fujifilm, that has a native capacity of 50 TB – almost three times that of archrival LTO-9 (which currently offers 18 TB). 

The launch comes five years after the previous TS1160 (which could hold up to 20 TB) and, extrapolating current retail prices, is expected to cost at least $500 per cartridge or $10 per TB. In comparison, a 12TB LTO-8 cartridge costs only $50 (or about $4/TB) while a standard 16 TB hard disk drive retails for about $220 (~$15/TB).

The TS1170 has a native data transfer rate of 400 MB/s (or 1.44TB per hour) with Fibre Channel (FC) and Serial-attached SCSI (SAS) options. Also on the feature list are AES-256 encryption, seamless integration with the TS4500 tape library and a one-year warranty. Up to 17,550 tape drives can be grouped together, delivering a combined capacity of 877.5 PB capacity or 2.63 Exabytes using the industry standard compression ratio of 3:1.

Although a 50 TB tape cartridge sounds like a lot, it isn’t new technology. 13 years ago, Hitachi Maxell and the Tokyo Institute of Technology announced they were working on a tape of similar capacity with a then world-record areal density of 45 Gb/in^2. 

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And in December 2020 (that’s almost three years ago), Fujifilm and IBM Research demoed a magnetic ribbon that paved the way for 580TB tapes, nearly 12x more than the one announced today and with a recording density of 317 Gb/in^2.

So yes, there’s a lot of life remaining in tape. While capacity doesn’t seem to be an issue, the maximum transfer rate has plateaued at 400 MB/s. In fact the transfer rate has increased by just 10% in almost a decade (TS 1150) while capacity has quintupled.

IBM hasn’t disclosed the price of the tape or the tape drive but you can expect the latter to be in the high-fours, low-fives digits. Beyond the 1170, peering into the 1180, a 2020 presentation from an IBM senior engineer alluded to a doubling of capacities, with a 100TB tape capacity and a native data transfer rate of 1000 MB/s.

To find out why tape has been so resilient and why cloud storage gave it another lease of life, check out our coverage of this technology.

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