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Remember video and cassettes tapes? They're back!

Unique technology for the AI age by Fujifilm

Magnetic tape, which was used to store music and video, is now back in the spotlight. What is the strategy of Fujifilm, which continues to produce magnetic tapes amid a succession of companies that have withdrawn from the market?

The world's leading platformers continue to adopt magnetic tape.

In the 21st century, magnetic tape has been replaced by DVDs, hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs).

Google's data centre in North Carolina, USA. Robots move in all directions, inserting and removing recording media to store and retrieve data. The media used here are not HDDs, but magnetic tapes. The world's leading platformers, such as Google and Microsoft, are now using magnetic tape to store and utilise data.

Magnetic tape is a media that uses magnetism to record data by dispersing and coating magnetic particles with magnetic properties onto a base film. This is the first time we've used the term "magnetic media".

However, it can store data for more than 50 years, consumes far less power, and can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 95% compared to HDDs. In fact, the technology has not stopped evolving and there is a roadmap for even greater capacity in the future. This is another reason for the confidence of platformers.

Magnetic tape had a long "winter period", when its position in the consumer market was gradually threatened by the widespread adoption of HDDs in the 1990s. In 2014, TDK withdrew from the market, saying that the business environment was difficult and that future growth was unlikely, and Maxell discontinued production in 2016. The magnetic tape market is now split between Japan's Fujifilm Corporation and the Sony Group.

Magnetic tape is back in the spotlight in the age of data explosion

However, there is a silver lining to this gloomy outlook: since 2010, as mentioned earlier, Google and other platformers have been actively using magnetic tape as a backup to the cloud. This is partly due to the fact that the amount of data that needs to be stored is increasing dramatically.

It is estimated that the amount of data in circulation worldwide will increase ninefold from less than 20 zettabytes (1 zettabyte = 1 trillion gigabytes) in 2015 to 175 zettabytes by 2025. 175 zettabytes would take 1.8 billion years to download at current average internet speeds. That's a lot of data. However, nearly 70 per cent of this data is "cold data", which is rarely used after it has been retrieved, and is accessed infrequently.

The main advantages of magnetic tape are its stability, which enables long-term storage, and its overwhelming cost performance. The cost of storing data is enormous, including the maintenance of space in data centres and power consumption. Magnetic tape is attracting attention as a low-cost and secure means of storing "cold data" that is accessed infrequently but may still be used.

In fact, when Google's Gmail service failed in 2011, the information was stored on magnetic tape and the loss of data was reduced to zero, and it also played a role in the recovery of Google's music distribution service after a major failure in 2012. This has led to the adoption of large quantities of magnetic tape in the cloud services of Microsoft and China's Baidu.

The global capacity of magnetic tape shipments has more than doubled from less than 20 exabytes (1 exabyte is 1 billion gigabytes) in 2010 to 50 exabytes in 2020. Fujifilm's sales of 26.2 billion yen in the fiscal year ending March 2021 (recording media division, including professional-use videotapes) are small compared to the company's total sales of 2,192.5 billion yen, but this is an area that is expected to generate stable profits in the future.

Achieving ultra-high capacity with proprietary technology

While other companies have been forced to withdraw from the business, Fujifilm has been keen to innovate.

General Manager of the Recording Media Division, explains why the company has continued to invest resources: "We predicted around 2000 that the time would come when magnetic tape would be needed to make use of the explosion of data. He says that he knew magnetic tape would eventually be needed.

Fujifilm has long been a leader in the development of high-capacity magnetic recording tapes, using technology developed in the company's film business as leverage. Magnetic tape requires uniform application of magnetic and non-magnetic layers to a thickness of a few micrometers, about half that of food wrap. This is where the technology developed in the manufacture of photographic film comes in handy, as it allows the fine particles to be applied evenly and thinly. By applying the magnetic material at a high density in a thin and smooth manner, we succeeded in increasing the recording capacity. In addition to the coating, the film manufacturing technology is also used in other detailed processes such as cutting and winding magnetic tape in a straight line.

In 2011, the company commercialised a magnetic tape that uses barium ferrite as the magnetic material. Many companies have tried to use barium ferrite in magnetic tapes, but they have not been able to do so because it is smaller than the metal magnetic materials used in the past and it is difficult to arrange them evenly.

Fujifilm has solved this problem by utilizing the technology of coating fine particles, which it has cultivated in its own business, to disperse them evenly and apply them thinly. It is expected that magnetic tape using barium ferrite will be able to achieve a capacity of up to 220 terabytes per roll.

In 2020, tests on magnetic tape with strontium ferrite magnetic material showed that it is technically possible to achieve a capacity of 580 terabytes (1 terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes), or 120,000 DVDs. HDDs have a maximum capacity of about 20 terabytes, less than half that of magnetic tape.

At the same time, Sony, a competitor, is developing optical discs, which have a longer shelf life than magnetic tape, and other recording media are undergoing technological innovation.

After a long winter, magnetic tape is back in the spotlight. The question now is whether it can continue to meet the ever-increasing demand for data storage.

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