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Communications of the ACM


The Future of Data Storage

data storage drive, illustration

Credit: Leo Photo

Over the decades, computer storage has encompassed a variety of technologies, including punch cards, floppy disks, tape, hard drives, and flash technology. In every instance, the objective is the same: keep data accessible and available for the future. These advances in speed and capacity have helped today's sophisticated computing frameworks take shape. However, despite these gains, a simple but sobering fact emerges: "Tape remains a popular and preferred way to back up data," explains Robert Grass, a professor of chemistry at ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and a leading expert on nanotechnology.

Consider: When a software bug destroyed the email boxes of Gmail users in 2011, Google turned to tape to restore the data. The company spent more than 30 hours painstakingly recreating the accounts. Other companies and government organizations have encountered similar circumstances—and many continue to rely on tape. The reason? Tape remains inexpensive, the data on a tape remains accessible longer than on other media, and tape is remarkably easy to use and manage, while offering security benefits. "It is not an accident that tape remains in use," Grass says.


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