by Alan R. Earls

Storage – Tale of the 9-Track Tape

Apr 01, 20042 mins

For a long time, 9-track was big. Its distinction: the only physical media shared among most mainframes, minicomputers, workstations, even PCs. CIOs came to rely on 9-track tapes as their primary storage medium for engineering, military and government archives, starting in the 1960s, making 9-track one of the most long-lived technologies in computing history. The drives, notes Timothy Shary, assistant professor of screen studies at Clark University, appeared as symbols of advanced technology in movies from Katherine Hepburn’s Desk Set (1957) to WarGames (1983).

But all good things must come to an end. In 2001, after more than 35 years of producing tapes, Graham Magnetics, in Graham, Texas, stopped shipping new 9-track tapes. And last September, Qualstar, the last U.S. 9-track drive maker, shipped its final unit.

Trey Wilkins, marketing director at eMag Solutions, the parent of Graham, says in the 10 years prior to the retirement of 9-track, demand for tapes was dropping by 20 percent a year. Likewise, says Bob Covey, vice president of marketing at Simi Valley, Calif.-based Qualstar, in the last three years, “demand for new drives had effectively fallen to zero.”

There continues to be a strong aftermarket for used and refurbished tape and equipment. But Covey says Qualstar’s focus is now on newer tape formats, such as DLT (digital linear tape) and LTO (linear tape open), and on drives with high levels of automation, storage well-suited to backup and archiving as venerable as 9-track was in its time.

Wilkins says 9-track is naturally a less stable medium than more modern tape media, making it vital for IT managers to preserve the information contained on older tapes.

That means some companies that own millions of 9-track reels will need to spend time and money to maintain and, most likely, migrate those tapes to newer media, says Stan Zaffos, a Gartner analyst.

The lesson, says Zaffos, is that CIOs must always look ahead to the next generation of storage technology while managing to ensure the survival of their data. He adds, “Archiving isn’t so much about technology as it is about procedures and practices.”