Replacing Tape with Flash

Photo of 1960s Computer Tape ReelIt’s not that often that a new technology comes as a complete surprise to The SSD Guy, especially one that is only a year away from shipping, and that promises to revolutionize the world of storage.  Yet, today a new start-up arrived that promises all of this.  It has really captured my attention.

This technology is aimed at the market for long-venerated magnetic tape, which continues to be the leading media format for large-scale backup.

This may be the first time that tape has even been mentioned in this blog, and with good reason: Tape sits on the slow side of the HDD in the memory/storage hierarchy, and that’s a huge distance away from the perspective of an SSD.

The basic idea is to use a tape mechanism to move phenomenal volumes of NAND flash chips through a read/write system.  It will be enabled by other breakthrough technologies which all seem to be coming into being at the same time, the key one being the development of rolls of chips.  When silicon is sufficiently thin it becomes very flexible, and the 30µm thickness of this silicon renders it supple enough to be rolled onto conventional magnetic tape reels.

This new flexible NAND technology promises to provide the latency of tape at the cost of flash.

Development is being undertaken by a stealth research and development institute known as the “Electronic Great American Desert” or eGAD, which was named for the geographic region of its hometown of Walla Walla Washington, the home of Bigfoot.

eGAD’s project team is being led by Supply Belcher, a noted specialist and 7th-generation descendant of the famous composer of the same name.  “When we learned of Dr. Lauder’s new direction for memory chip production we realized that this was something that the world was waiting for!  Rather than cut the silicon up into tiny pieces to be stacked in plastic packages, why not slit it lengthwise into ribbons that can be economically transported on a simple reel?”

Each reel that used to hold 2,400ft of 9-track magnetic tape (730m) will now hold a similar length of NAND flash tape, since the NAND tape will be roughly the same thickness as the Mylar tape it replaces.  This means that the reel that’s based on 128-layer QLC NAND flash will store 12.4PB (petabytes) of data, nearly three orders of magnitude greater than the 18TB of native capacity for a conventional LTO-9 magnetic tape cartridge as is used in today’s most advanced tape storage systems.  As the layer count and bits-per-cell of NAND flash increases, the flash tapes’ capacity will quite naturally increase.

“Dr. Lauder’s invention will cause the cost of tape storage to decrease over time far faster than it ever has in the past,” said Belcher, “first, because the migration of semiconductors from archaic batch processes to roll-to-roll processing will drive a step function in flash’s price decrease, and second because Moore’s Law-based NAND flash density increases will translate to proportional growth in NAND tape capacities.”

eGAD has put considerable thought into this concept.  Knowing that silicon is more fragile than Mylar tape, the institute’s designers have fine-tuned certain ideas introduced in IBM’s System 360 tape drives of the 1960s, pictured below.  The engineers who designed the IBM drives knew that rapid start-and-stop motion by motors, and their ensuing inertia would be likely to break the magnetic tape.  They solved this problem by placing vacuum columns on either side of the read head unit for fine adjustments, only using the reel motors to make approximate adjustments.  These vacuum columns appear in the bottom half of the cabinets.

Photo of three IBM tape drives from the 1960s

Silicon is denser than Mylar, so each flash tape reel weighs 2/3 more than its magnetic tape counterpart, making the vacuum columns’ role even more critical.  The greater weight increases the reel’s inertia, but doesn’t pose that big of a problem in mounting and unmounting the tape.

Another tricky issue is the read head, which will be massively more sophisticated than are the heads used in magnetic tape systems.  eGAD’s designers are working with probe card manufacturers to develop a rotating prober that will keep the probes aligned with the bonding pads on the flash chips as the tape moves through the mechanism.  “It’s all very ingenious,” says Dr. Belcher.

“These are all existing technologies that are simply being re-tooled to take advantage of flexible NAND flash.  This means that we’ll spend less time managing the learning curve, and more time profiting from our competitive advantage.  Commercialization will be almost trivial.”

When asked about the availability of this exciting new system, Belcher said: “We’re on a tight schedule, and we eagerly anticipate the day that flash will displace tape the same way that it has completely eliminated HDDs.  To that end, we plan to ship systems for revenue one year from today, on April first, 2023.”











Photo of IBM Series 360 tape drives courtesy of Erik Pitti from San Diego, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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