When the state of Carinthia fell victim to a ransomware attack last year, this was just one example of many at international level: According to a report by “Zscaler “, the number of these cyber attacks increased by 80 percent from 2021 to 2022. The manufacturing industry is still the most affected, but the strongest growth is recorded in the health sector with an increase of 650 percent. In ransomware attacks, the attackers encrypt data and systems and demand a ransom – this can not only be expensive, but also paralyze a company for days and result in costly backup processes.

In an interview with STANDARD, IBM Austria said that this development was causing a real renaissance in a technology that had never completely disappeared but had been forgotten by the general public: tape drives. According to a report by Popular Science , this technology is used by institutions such as CERN, but also by corporations such as Amazon, Google and Meta.

History and present of tape drives

Storage on magnetic tape dates back to the early days of computer technology in the 1950s and 1960s, long before there were floppy disks, CDs or even SSDs. The IBM 726 in 1952 could transfer data at a speed of 6.1 kB/s, was about the size of a refrigerator and had a storage capacity of around 2.3 megabytes – less than a 3.5-inch Diskette.

Since then a lot has happened. In 2017, for example, IBM started shipping the TS1155: a tape drive in which a cartridge has a storage capacity of 15 terabytes and enables transfer rates of 360 megabytes per second. IBM’s latest tape library, the TS3500, can store up to 2.25 exabytes of uncompressed data. It is predicted that a single cassette will be able to store 580 terabytes of data in the future – this corresponds to the capacity of 786,977 CDs.

Another misconception is that the cassettes – like in the past – are inserted by hand. This work is now automated by a robot, as the following video shows. The tapes are labeled with barcodes, which the robot uses to identify which cassette to grab and read.

Protection against ransomware

This technology protects against ransomware attacks with what the company smartly calls “air-gapped isolation  . In essence, this means nothing other than that the data stored on the tape drives is physically separated from the rest of the company’s IT and detached from the Internet.

The backup concept therefore provides for regular “snapshots” – i.e. copies of the existing data – to be created and written to the tape drives in unchangeable form. If there is a ransomware attack and the IT used in everyday life is encrypted, a backup can be read from the tape drives.

In addition to the security aspect, IBM emphasizes the advantages of longevity and ecological sustainability when it comes to cassette drives. On this basis, it has been possible to save satellite images from the 1960s , and unlike other storage technologies, cassettes do not consume any electricity when not in use.

Complementary instead of displacement

However, tape drives are not a panacea – because it is not without reason that they have been pushed into the background by other storage technologies over the past few decades. For example, it is not possible to only record individual sectors of a tape – the motto here is “all or nothing”, which makes the technology correspondingly inflexible.

In addition, Johnny Yu, Research Manager at IDC, emphasizes in an interview with “Popular Science” that the data can be accessed comparatively slowly – you will not want to run a live system on tape, but the technology is suitable for long-term archiving of material optimal. Or, as James Bain, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, puts it: “Just as the SSD has not supplanted the HDD, so the HDD has not supplanted the cartridge.” In growing data centers, the technologies exist complementary to each other.


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