Tale of the tape: How IBM ushered in the age of digital storage
5/4/2012 11:55 AM EDT
As businesses around the globe contend with the incessant, pounding waves of data crashing into their data centers, some may wonder how we reached this point in the first place. While there was a great deal of experimentation going on in the early days of the computer industry, and while there have been a great number of innovations since, it's fair to say that the digital storage industry as we know it today would not have occurred without an innovation created by a team of IBM engineers 60 years ago this May. The innovation enabled the massive calculating machines to save their results digitally on reels of magnetic tape instead of on punch cards, creating entirely new ways to view and gain insight from, digital information.
To be sure, over the course of time, innovative approaches to earlier inventions have often paved the way for progress. New applications, innovative enhancements, or outright redesigns of earlier inventions pushed many of them into mass production and the mainstream. Thomas Edison, famous for many things, did not, of course, invent the incandescent light bulb. The first successful experiment with the electric light occurred almost 60 years prior to Edison's innovative use of a vacuum to remove the oxygen from the bulb, as well as a new filament design, to extend the life of the light bulb from a few hours to more than 1,500.
And so it was for the fledgling computer industry of the 1940s and 50s—a time when calculating and processing wasn't the concern any longer, but rather storing the results of the calculations. During those early years, the only recordable techniques for the massive calculating systems involved "physical media"—hard copy books, paper and punch cards. It was becoming clear that as these systems gained performance their storage solutions were not sustainable.
IBM engineers turned to a newer technology of the day, magnetic tape, for answers. The technology, which had been used to capture audio, held promise for the hulking computing systems, but tape was just not durable enough. When large reels of it were applied for capturing the computer data, the tape drives' powerful motors, which abruptly started and stopped, easily snapped the tape.
IBM engineers tackled the breakage problem head-on. And on May 21, 1952, when the company released its first production computer, the IBM 701, it also released an accompanying storage system that represented a breakthrough in magnetic tape. The IBM 726 was a 935-pound floor-standing behemoth that solved the breakage problem through the use of a "vacuum column" which created a buffer of loose tape between starts and stops. This U-shaped loop of loose tape allowed the tape to better absorb the extremely fast starts and stops of the system.
The vacuum column innovation was not only a success, but it was adopted by most high-performance tape drive manufacturers, making it one of the most widely used computer technologies of the 20th century. The technology became so prevalent that the image of the start and stop, reel-to-reel tape system, became the iconic, albeit unofficial, image that would symbolize the "computer" for an entire generation in news and entertainment.
To be sure, the challenges of 2012 are not what they were in 1952. Today, game-changing dynamics such as social media, mobile computing, Big Data and regulation are all intersecting to create a digital traffic jam of epic proportions. By some accounts, the amount of information needed to be digitally stored will exceed 8 zettabytes (or, 8 billion terabytes) by 2015. These trends and forecasts are forcing every industry to look at their storage infrastructures more carefully than ever before.
But there is no magic bullet, no single technology solution that will prepare for the data deluge. The businesses that succeed will be those that leverage the most strategic storage technologies available—from tape to solid state, and virtualization to the cloud—to increase efficiency, minimize risk, lower costs, improve access, and strengthen security. It will also be those that exploit solutions that offer greater data classification, because not all data is created equal nor does it maintain the same relevance over time.
That is the path to this new frontier of storage, this new era of computing. And IBM is leading the way once again with new products and innovations and the broadest portfolio in the industry, that help customers achieve business outcomes through smarter storage.
As in life, it is good practice in business to stop occasionally and reflect on what was, and examine the origins of our achievements. This May is one of those occasions. IBM will look back to 1952 as a milestone in the course of computing and a reminder of how innovation can alter the future and what is possible.
Brian Truskowski is the general manager of system storage and networking for IBM's Systems and Technology Group.