Make way for nano cubic

As storage becomes more and more important for the enterprise, analysts and vendors agree that the advance in magnetic media recording technology recently announced by Fujifilm Canada Inc. should extend the long-term viability of tape as an archival medium.

Fujifilm’s “nano cubic” technology is an ultra-thin layer coating for magnetic particle tapes, said Jeff Hemming, the company’s Mississauga, Ont.-based technical director of magnetic products.

“Basically, the thinner you can make a magnetic layer, and the smaller and finer the particles that you can disperse on that thin magnetic layer, the more powerful the signal you can record. And also, thinner, smaller particles and smoother surfaces all combine to mean you can record more in a given area and use shorter and shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies,” Hemmings explained.

Once nano cubic technology winds its way through the production channel, Fujifilm believes that it will increase the native capacity of data cartridges such as an LTO from 100GB to 1TB, and floppy disk capacities to 3GB.

According to Hemmings, the nano cubic media is well suited to the tape head technology that’s currently used in hard disk drives.

“Magneto-resistive (MR) heads currently aren’t able to be used with any tape technology or flexible disk but (nano cubic) would enable the MR heads – which are very, very sensitive, so the information has to be written in very short wavelength, high frequency form – to potentially be used with tape,” he said.

David Hill, research director for storage and storage management at the Aberdeen Group in Boston, said that nano cubic represents a positive step forward in the tape market. “Fuji has a good track record and the ability to put more data on a single tape cartridge is always useful,” he said.

Promising future

Hill said that nano cubic is also promising because it is built on the foundation of Fujifilm’s successful ATOMM (advanced super-thin layer and high output metal media) tape technology rather than standing alone as an entirely new media.

After ATOMM was developed in 1992, it enabled a slew of new storage technologies, Hemmings said, including a Fujifilm relationship with Iomega Corp. that led to the development of the DLT and LTO cartridge formats, and the introduction of the 100MB Zip disk, which launched the high-capacity floppy disk format. Hemming said that Fujifilm hopes nano cubic technology would prove equally fruitful.

“I think probably Quantum/ATL (Corp.) in SuperDLT, and IBM, HP and Seagate (Technology Inc.) in LTO laid out a roadmap of future generations of products, probably assuming that the later very high-capacity ones would have to go back to the metal-evaporated (tape format). Now these vendors will be able to keep on utilizing metal particle technology which is more durable in use, more stable in archival qualities and cheaper – that’s the kicker,” Hemmings said.

Fujifilm has been a major supplier of data-grade magnetic media for Redmond, Wash.’s Advanced Digital Information Corp (ADIC), said company spokesperson Steve Whitner. Since ADIC makes enterprise-scale SuperDLT and LTO storage networks, Whitner said the idea of higher-capacity tapes is an appealing one.

“As soon as manufacturers such as Quantum make drives that would support (nano cubic), we will enter the process to ensure both the new media and the drives can handle the issues with the larger systems we create,” Whitner said.

However, both Whitner and Aberdeen’s Hill agreed that infrastructure and manufacturing changes – even relatively minor ones – required to mass-produce drives for nano cubic tape mean both time to market and take-up rates will probably be measured in years.

Fujifilm’s Hemmings agreed, conceding that “It’s one thing to demonstrate a product, it’s another thing to mass-produce it economically.” However, he said that as a metal particle tape, moving to nano cubic requires relatively small adjustments to the existing ATOMM processes, and pays off with an exponential improvement in capacity. “There’s no end to the depths you can go into of the physics behind why an ultra-thin coating is more efficient and more suitable for high-density recording.”

Tony Prigmore, senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group in Milford, Mass., said that in order for Fujifilm to really benefit from this new technology it needs to develop very specific marketing positions for it.

“You can’t just sell improvements in tape as a general-purpose advancement. In the enterprise, the adoption of the technology will come down to how quickly the library manufacturers adopt it, and how quickly Fujifilm evangelizes the technology benefits of higher densities and increased capacities to the end users,” Prigmore said.

Low cost rivals

Prigmore also suggested that tape systems will face increasing competition from inexpensive disk drives which are becoming very popular for archiving and secondary storage applications.

“There’s no question that some of the applications (of nano cubic technology) are interesting from a cost-effective archiving standpoint. But on the performance side it still has a long way to go because at the same time (Fujifilm’s competitors) are developing next generation disk technology. This means the price and performance of disk drives is improving at the same kind of rate,” Prigmore said.

For now, both Hill and Prigmore said that tape’s low price is its main appeal, but any data used for “active storage” – that is, online data, applications and databases – will clearly continue to reside on spinning disks.

However, Whitner said that as more information becomes digitized his company has fielded increasing requests from such non-traditional storage customers as the entertainment business.

“One of the things that’s going on in their industry is that everything’s becoming digital. Television broadcasts are digital, motion pictures are going digital, there’s an increasing move toward making digital video available via Web servers, and all of that stuff increases dramatically the amount of data that people have to store and deal with.”

The bottom line, Whitner said, is that with every IT department in every industry becoming stuffed with information, “New tape technologies have to progress in order for us to keep protecting network data. It’s accelerating so rapidly that we rely on technology leaps like this, and we look forward to them.”