A Brief History of Tape Data Storage 

Magnetic tapes have played an integral role in data storage for more than 70 years. Today, the tape data storage market continues to grow — while the market for hard drives has started to wane.

Below, we’ll provide an overview of the history of data storage. For guidance with a tape migration project, read: Planning Tape Data Migration: 5 Key Factors for Success or send us a message to connect with an expert.

1951: Magnetic Tape Becomes a Data Storage Standard

Prior to the 1950s, magnetic tape was widely used for audio storage. That changed with the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer), the first American computer created for civilian administrative use. 

The UNIVAC 1 had a basic internal memory capable of storing 100 words with 12 characters each, but for many applications, this was insufficient. The UNIVAC 1 supported up to 10 UNISERVO tape drives, which stored data in fixed-size blocks of 60 words (again, with 12 characters each). 

1956: The First Hard Drives Enter the Market

The IBM Model 350 was the first commercially available hard drive, and it was immediately a viable alternative to magnetic tape. 

The Model 350 could store 3.75 megabytes on fifty 24-inch disks — an incredible achievement for the time. While it was relatively expensive (lease agreements cost $750 per month), its enormous capacity made it essential for many applications. 

Subsequent generations doubled the capacity of each previous generation of hard drive. That trend continued for decades, but tape storage remained critical. 

1961: IBM Introduces the IBM 7340

The IBM 7340 Hypertape was designed for scientific workloads, with major improvements to processing speed and storage capacity. It was notable for being one of the first dual-reel cassettes — a precursor to the tape cartridges that became commonplace in data centers several decades later. 

During the early age of computing, mass data storage devices were only attainable (and necessary) for specific uses. Colleges and government offices could afford to purchase tape drives and lease hard drives, but the home computer revolution brought much more significant changes to data storage technology.

1970s – 1980s: Compact Cassettes Become Standard for Home Computers

Technically, home computers were available in the 1970s, but these “microcomputers” were mostly popular with hobbyists. As microprocessors became more affordable, home computing became practically possible.

The Apple II series, introduced in 1977, supported floppy disks, hard drives, and Smartport storage. And in 1982, the Commodore 64 (C64) became a dominant player in the low-end home computing market. 

The Commodore Datasette 300 baud tape interface enabled users to install applications and store personal data. Since the tapes could “download” audio data, some radio and television stations would broadcast software for users to record and install on their C64s. 

1980s: The Growth of the Commercial Tape Backup Industry 

As computers became more affordable, commercial enterprises looked for ways to back up extensive amounts of data. The computing industry responded, introducing a number of high-density formats:

  • Digital Linear Tape (DLT), introduced by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1984.
  • The IBM 3480 family, a one-half inch cartridge introduced in 1984.
  • Data 8, an eight-millimeter helical scan magnetic cassette introduced by Sony in 1987. 
  • Digital Data Storage (DDS), based on Digital Audio Tape (DAT) format and introduced in 1989.

These tape cartridges featured progressively faster read/write speeds, more storage, and improved longevity. However, the lack of a consistent standard introduced problems: Organizations would need to regularly migrate to new formats to take advantage of the improvements in the tech. 

2000: Linear Tape-Open (LTO) Provides an Open Standard for Data Storage

In the late 1990s, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Quantum established the LTO Consortium, which developed the LTO Ultrium format as an affordable alternative to proprietary tape cartridges. 

The refined “super tape” addressed many data storage challenges:

  • All LTO formats are backwards-compatible with at least one previous generation.
  • Each generation dramatically extends the capacity of the previous generation. LTO-9, the latest format at the time of publication, provides an 18-terabyte native capacity, and LTO-10 is expected to feature twice the capacity.
  • From LTO-3 onwards, the format is WORM (Write Once, Read Many) capable.
  • From LTO-4 onwards, LTO tapes are encryption capable. 
  • The Linear Tape File System (LTFS), introduced with LTO-5, allows users to access data similarly to conventional storage devices like hard drives and flash drives, bypassing one of the major drawbacks of read-only magnetic storage.

Of course, hard drive technology continued to improve during the 1990s and 2000s, but tape storage remained essential for data archiving and enterprise backup. 

2020s: The Rise of Ransomware and Continued Growth

Today, many enterprises and data centers continue to rely on tape cartridges — for good reason.

tapes in a data center

Tapes can insulate organizations from the threat of ransomware by providing air-gapped storage, and the LTO Ultrium 9 format boasts a lower per-terabyte cost than commercial hard drives. Tapes allow for improved archival scalability, and they’re generally more secure than other storage solutions (depending on the design of the system). 

At Total Data Migration, we’ve sung the praises of tape storage for decades. Given that the market continues to outpace the market for hard drive storage, we’ve made some accurate predictions. 

If you’re considering a data project, we’re prepared to help. Our experts can help your organization form a tape migration strategy, securely sanitize legacy media, and limit exposure to ransomware and other malware.

To learn more, send us a message to schedule a consultation.