A beautiful nine

In Ron Howard’s new film, A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe portrays mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., the Nobel-prize winning creator of game theory.

The story shows how Nash was recruited by the United States government as a number-crunching code-breaker. Early in the film he is led

into a 1970s-era computer room full of whirring mainframes, probably some of the most sophisticated equipment of their time. I’m not sure exactly what data was supposed to be inside those systems, but you can be pretty sure it was stored with nine-track open reel tape.

This celluloid celebrity constitutes the last hurrah for open reel tape, which may be finally dying out. Just before Christmas the last remaining manufacturer of the technology, Atlanta-based eMag Solutions LLC, announced an “”End of Life Plan”” for the nine-track and is phasing out product. The decision did not come easily. As the deadline for final orders came Monday, eMag will be saying goodbye to a business it has maintained for 30 years. It has spent the last three years coming up with a wide range of alternative solutions, including data distribution services and de-virtualization software, which are explained in a detailed FAQ section of its Web site. If only all companies gave as much forethought and consideration for customer migrations instead of pushing them towards the next big thing.

Nine-track tape has probably offered users a longer return-on-investment than any other storage technology. It is a perfect example of why we launched the monthly “”Worth Keeping”” feature on ITBusiness.ca. Though eMag admits that demand no longer justifies its production, in its glory days some 37 million equivalents of nine-track open-reel computer tape were manufactured and sold each year, according to Magnetic Media Information Services. The 10.5-inch reels were capable of storing an eight-bit byte when they were introduced to the industry by IBM in 1954. This meant big boxes to store what today would seem like very small amounts of data.

It was only to be expected that IBM would try to top itself with the 3480 magnetic tape cartridge in 1983, a four-inch product that could hold 200MB. Yet enterprise customers held on to their enterprise-size nine-tracks for longer than anyone could have expected. It was only five years ago, for example, that New York University published a warning to all its staff that its tapes were being retired. Its older nine-tracks were writing 250MB on a reel, while a CD-ROM could store twice as much on a disk less than a tenth the size.

The death of nine-tracks will probably force some enterprises to get an early start on their spring cleaning. The beauty of the format was that it could protect and store data that wasn’t actively used. Designed for daily use, hard drives often fail to maintain the data in its original condition. Many hard drives also lack the backwards-compatibility of tape cartridges. Only DVD has the potential to offer the same kind of reliability, scaleablity and easy removal of tape drives. But tape drives actually made storage interesting to watch: I will miss the ATL robot arms moving tapes through libraries at trade shows.

Anything that lasts 47 years in this industry deserves to be remembered. If there was an IT Hall of Fame, nine-track tape would be up for induction. It may take up a lot of space, but there would be little else to stand beside it.

sschick@plesman.com

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