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tape drive

A physical unit that holds, reads and writes the magnetic tape. See magnetic tape.

magnetic tape

A sequential storage medium used for data collection, backup and archiving. Like videotape, computer tape is made of flexible plastic with one side coated with a ferromagnetic material. Tapes were originally open reels, but were superseded by cartridges and cassettes of many sizes and shapes.

Tape has been more economical than disks for archival data, but that is changing as disk capacities have increased enormously. If tapes are stored for the duration, they must be periodically recopied or the tightly coiled magnetic surfaces may contaminate each other.

Sequential Medium
The major drawback of tape is its sequential format. Locating a specific record requires reading every record in front of it or searching for markers that identify predefined partitions. Although most tapes are used for archiving rather than routine updating, some drives allow rewriting in place if the byte count does not change. Otherwise, updating requires copying files from the original tape to a blank tape (scratch tape) and adding the new data in between.

Track Formats
Tracks run parallel to the edge of the tape (linear recording) or diagonally (helical scan). A linear variation is serpentine recording, in which the tracks "snake" back and forth from the end of the tape to the beginning.

Legacy open reel tapes used nine linear tracks (8 bits plus parity), while modern cartridges use 128 or more tracks. Data are recorded in blocks of contiguous bytes, separated by a space called an "interrecord gap" or "interblock gap." Tape drive speed is measured in inches per second (ips). Over the years, storage density has increased from 200 to 38,000 bpi. See helical scan and compact tape.

Tracks on Magnetic Tape
Except for helical scan recording, most tracks on magnetic tape run parallel to the length of the tape.

Magnetic Tape Summary
The following magnetic tape technologies are summarized below. See also magnetic disk and optical disc.

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