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DDS tape drive. Above, from left to right: DDS-4 tape (20 GB), 112m Data8 tape (2.5 GB), QIC DC-6250 tape (250 MB), and a 3.5' floppy disk (1.44 MB)

A tape drive is a data storage device that reads and writes data on a magnetic tape. Magnetic tape data storage is typically used for offline, archival data storage. Tape media generally has a favorable unit cost and a long archival stability.

A tape drive provides sequential access storage, unlike a hard disk drive, which provides direct access storage. A disk drive can move to any position on the disk in a few milliseconds, but a tape drive must physically wind tape between reels to read any one particular piece of data. As a result, tape drives have very large average access times. However, tape drives can stream data very quickly off a tape when the required position has been reached. For example, as of 2010Linear Tape-Open (LTO) supported continuous data transfer rates of up to 140 MB/s, a rate comparable to hard disk drives.


An external QIC tape drive.

Magnetic tape drives with capacities less than one megabyte were first used for data storage on mainframe computers in the 1950s. As of 2014, capacities of 10 terabytes or higher of uncompressed data per cartridge were available.

In early computer systems, magnetic tape served as the main storage medium because although the drives were expensive, the tapes were inexpensive. Some computer systems ran the operating system on tape drives such as DECtape. DECtape had fixed-size indexed blocks that could be rewritten without disturbing other blocks, so DECtape could be used like a slow disk drive.

Data tape drives may use advanced data integrity techniques such as multilevel forward error correction, shingling, and linear serpentine layout for writing data to tape.

Tape drives can be connected to a computer with SCSI, Fibre Channel, SATA, USB, FireWire, FICON, or other interfaces.[a] Tape drives are used with autoloaders and tape libraries which automatically load, unload, and store multiple tapes, increasing the volume of data which can be stored without manual intervention.

In the early days of home computing, floppy and hard disk drives were very expensive. Many computers had an interface to store data via an audio tape recorder, typically on Compact Cassettes. Simple dedicated tape drives, such as the professional DECtape and the home ZX Microdrive and Rotronics Wafadrive, were also designed for inexpensive data storage. However, the drop in disk drive prices made such alternatives obsolete.

Data compression[edit]

As some data can be compressed to a smaller size than the original files, it has become commonplace when marketing tape drives to state the capacity with the assumption of a 2:1 compression ratio; thus a tape with a capacity of 80 GB would be sold as '80/160'. The true storage capacity is also known as the native capacity or the raw capacity. The compression ratio actually achievable depends on the data being compressed. Some data has little redundancy; large video files, for example, already use compression and cannot be compressed further. A database with repetitive entries, on the other hand, may allow compression ratios better than 10:1.

Technical limitations[edit]

A disadvantageous effect termed shoe-shining occurs during read/write if the data transfer rate falls below the minimum threshold at which the tape drive heads were designed to transfer data to or from a continuously running tape. In this situation, the modern fast-running tape drive is unable to stop the tape instantly. Instead, the drive must decelerate and stop the tape, rewind it a short distance, restart it, position back to the point at which streaming stopped and then resume the operation. If the condition repeats, the resulting back-and-forth tape motion resembles that of shining shoes with a cloth. Shoe-shining decreases the attainable data transfer rate, drive and tape life, and tape capacity.

In early tape drives, non-continuous data transfer was normal and unavoidable. Computer processing power and available memory were usually insufficient to provide a constant stream, so tape drives were typically designed for start-stop operation. Early drives used very large spools, which necessarily had high inertia and did not start and stop moving easily. To provide high start, stop and seek performance, several feet of loose tape was played out and pulled by a suction fan down into two deep open channels on either side of the tape head and capstans. The long thin loops of tape hanging in these vacuum columns had far less inertia than the two reels and could be rapidly started, stopped and repositioned. The large reels would move as required to keep the slack tape in the vacuum columns.

Later, most tape drives of the 1980s introduced the use of an internal data buffer to somewhat reduce start-stop situations.[b] These drives are often referred to as tape streamers. The tape was stopped only when the buffer contained no data to be written, or when it was full of data during reading. As faster tape drives became available, despite being buffered, the drives started to suffer from the shoe-shining sequence of stop, rewind, start.

Most recently, drives no longer operate at a single fixed linear speed, but have several speeds. Internally, they implement algorithms that dynamically match the tape speed level to the computer's data rate. Example speed levels could be 50 percent, 75 percent and 100 percent of full speed. A computer that streams data slower than the lowest speed level (e.g. at 49 percent) will still cause shoe-shining.


Magnetic tape is commonly housed in a casing known as a cassette or cartridge—for example, the 4-track cartridge and the Compact Cassette. The cassette contains magnetic tape to provide different audio content using the same player. The outer shell, made of plastic, sometimes with metal plates and parts, permits ease of handling of the fragile tape, making it far more convenient and robust than having spools of exposed tape. Simple analog cassette audio tape recorders were commonly used for data storage and distribution on home computers at a time when floppy disk drives were very expensive. The Commodore Datasette was a dedicated data version using the same media.


1951Remington RandUNISERVO224 KBFirst computer tape drive, used ​12' nickel-plated phosphor bronze tape
1952IBM726Use of plastic tape (cellulose acetate);

7-track tape that could store every 6-bit byte plus a parity bit

1958IBM729[c]Separate read/write heads providing transparent read-after-write verification.[3]
1964IBM24009-track tape that could store every 8-bit byte plus a parity bit
1970sIBM3400Auto-loading tape reels and drives, avoiding manual tape threading

Group coded recording for error recovery

19723MQuarter Inch Cartridge (QIC-11)20 MBTape cassette (with two reels)

Linear serpentine recording[4]

1974IBM3850Tape cartridge (with single reel)

First tape library with robotic access[5]

1975(various)Kansas City standardUse of standard audio cassettes
1977Commodore InternationalCommodore Datasette1978 KB
1980Cipher(F880?)RAM buffer to mask start-stop delays[6][7]
1984IBM3480200 MBInternal takeup reel with automatic tape takeup mechanism.

Thin-film magnetoresistive (MR) head[8]

1984DECTK5094 MBDigital Linear Tape (DLT) line of products[9]
1986IBM3480400 MBHardware data compression (IDRC algorithm[10])
1987Exabyte/SonyEXB-82002.4 GBFirst helical digital tape drive

Elimination of the capstan and pinch-roller system

1993DECTx87Tape directory (database with first tapemark nr on each serpentine pass)[11]
1995IBM3570Servo tracks - factory-recorded tracks for precise head positioning (Time Based Servoing or TBS)[12]

Tape on unload rewound to the midpoint—halving access time (requires two-reel cassette)[13]

1996HPDDS312 GBPartial-response maximum-likelihood (PRML) reading method—no fixed thresholds[14]
1997IBMVTSVirtual tape—disk cache that emulates tape drive[5]
1999ExabyteMammoth-260 GBSmall cloth-covered wheel for cleaning tape heads. Inactive burnishing heads to prep the tape and deflect any debris or excess lubricant. Section of cleaning material at the beginning of each data tape.
2000QuantumSuper DLT110 GBOptical servo precisely positioning the heads[15]
2000Linear Tape-OpenLTO-1100 GB
2003IBM3592300 GBVirtual backhitch
2003Linear Tape-OpenLTO-2200 GB
2003SonySAIT-1500 GBSingle-reel cartridge for helical recording
2005IBMTS1120700 GB
2005Linear Tape-OpenLTO-3400 GB
2006StorageTekT10000500 GBMultiple head assemblies and servos per drive[16]
2007Linear Tape-OpenLTO-4800 GB
2008IBMTS11301 TBEncryption capability integrated into the drive
2008StorageTekT10000B1 TB
2010Linear Tape-OpenLTO-5 1.5 TBLinear Tape File System (LTFS), which allows accessing files on tape in the file system directly (similar to disk filesystems) without an additional tape library database
2011IBMTS11404 TBLinear Tape File System (LTFS) supported
2011StorageTekT10000C5 TBLinear Tape File System (LTFS) supported
2012Linear Tape-OpenLTO-62.5 TB
2013StorageTekT10000D8.5 TB
2014IBMTS115010 TB
2015Linear Tape-OpenLTO-76 TB
2017IBMTS115515 TB
2017Linear Tape-OpenLTO-812 TB
2018IBMTS116020 TB


Manufacturers often specify the capacity of tapes using data compression techniques; compressibility varies for different data (commonly 2:1 to 8:1), and the specified capacity may not be attained for some types of real data. As of 2014, tape drives capable of higher capacity were still being developed.

Sony Camcorder Tapes

In 2011, Fujifilm and IBM announced that they had been able to record 29.5 billion bits per square inch with magnetic tape media developed using the BaFe particles and nanotechnologies, allowing drives with true (uncompressed) tape capacity of 35 TB.[17][18] The technology was not expected to be commercially available for at least a decade.

In 2014, Sony and IBM announced that they had been able to record 148 billion bits per square inch with magnetic tape media developed using a new vacuum thin-film forming technology able to form extremely fine crystal particles, allowing true tape capacity of 185 TB.[19][20]


Drivers Sony Tape Drivers

  1. ^Historical interfaces include also ESCON, parallel port, IDE, Pertec.
  2. ^Some modern designs are still developed to operate in a non-linear fashion. IBM's 3xxx formats are designed to keep the tape moving irrespective of the data buffer—segments are written when data is available, but gaps are written when buffers run empty. When the drive detects an idle period, it re-reads the fragmented segments into a buffer and writes them back over the fragmented sections—a 'virtual backhitch'.[1]
  3. ^As of January 2009, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California has working IBM 729 tape drives attached to its working IBM 1401 system.[2]


Sony Tape Drive

  1. ^Mellor, Chris (2005-03-02). 'Mainframe tape lock-in ended'. TechWorld.
  2. ^'1401Restoration-CHM'. 2011-05-14. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  3. ^'Internet Archive Wayback Machine'(PDF). 2011-01-07. Archived from the original(PDF) on October 12, 2008. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  4. ^Crandall, Daryl (April 30, 1990). 'Another summary of 1/4' tape systems'. Sun Managers Mailing List. Archived from the original on March 10, 2012. Retrieved 2013-04-21.
  5. ^ ab'IBM Archives: Fifty years of storage innovation'. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  6. ^'Capstanless magnetic tape drive with electronic equivalent to length of tape - Cipher Data Products, Inc'. 1985-02-19. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  7. ^'Operation and Maintenance Instructions for Model F880 Tape Transport'. Archived from the original on September 22, 2007. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  8. ^'IBM 3480 magnetic tape subsystem'. Retrieved 2013-04-19.
  9. ^'DECsystem 5100 Maintenance Guide'(PDF). August 1990. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  10. ^'3480 & 3490 tape backup migration'. advanced downloading ltd. Retrieved 2013-04-19.
  11. ^'Tape'. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  12. ^'Hard-disk-drive technology flat heads for linear tape recording'. Archived from the original on February 16, 2008. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  13. ^'Archived copy'. Archived from the original on 2007-10-17. Retrieved 2007-03-19.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^'Data retrieval - Hewlett-Packard Development Company, L.P'. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  15. ^'Tape Wars: Is The End Near? - tape drives - Industry Trend or Event - page 2 Computer Technology Review'. Archived from the original on 2012-07-10. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  16. ^'STK Tape Drive Products and Technology'(PDF). Retrieved 2012-01-31.
  17. ^'FujiFilm Barium-Ferrite Magnetic Tape Establishes World Record in Data Density: 29.5 Billion Bits per Square Inch'. Fujifilm. January 22, 2010. Retrieved 2011-07-13.
  18. ^Harris, Robin (January 24, 2010). 'A 70 TB tape cartridge: too much, too late?'. ZDNet. Retrieved 2011-07-13.
  19. ^'Sony develops magnetic tape technology with the world's highest*1 areal recording density of 148 Gb/in2'. Sony Global. Retrieved 2014-05-04.
  20. ^Fingas, Jon (May 4, 2014). 'Sony's 185TB data tape puts your hard drive to shame'. Engadget. Retrieved 2014-05-04.
  • This article is based on material taken from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing prior to 1 November 2008 and incorporated under the 'relicensing' terms of the GFDL, version 1.3 or later.

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