IBM 3590 (Magstar) (March 1997)

PDM provides some technical background to the IBM Magstar High Density tape storage system.

IBM claim a worldwide market in the oil business of around 1 billion dollars. IBM considers the exploration market segment as being a powerful driver in storage systems because of the high demands that seismic recording put on both volumes, I/O bandwidth and reliability. Consequently E&P gets an early look at most of IBM's cutting edge technology which appears to have served IBM well in the battle for the High Density Media format for the current generation of seismic recorders. It is estimated that the E&P sector installs around 10% of the worldwide number of tape drives, but this market share increases to 25% of the world's total when the number of media is considered. Apart from IBM's 9 track (a.k.a. 3420) tape credentials (early SEG tape formats actually specified an IBM hub, and the proprietary EBCDIC SEG header is a relic of this blatant favouritism) the later 3480/3490 drives are claimed to be the most widely installed tape device in the world.

Form factor

The adoption of the 3480 form factor (jargon for the physical dimensions of the tape itself) for the new 3590 cartridge was a further argument in favour of the latest IBM offering.

Magstar - as the 3590 is also known - allows for multi volume files and multi file volumes. Furthermore the drive hardware is scaleable, from a single tape drive, through a single drive with autoload, to full blown robotics systems. IBM claim the cost/performance of the 3590 even makes it a candidate for on-line storage, with drives theoretically being able to replace disks in high performance computing environments. Such drives may even be striped, i.e. data can be written simultaneously across several different drives, effectively multiplying I/O bandwidth by the number of drives in use.


In the past, drive hardware specifications have been, or have become public domain information, allowing other manufacturers to compete with IBM. The 3590's innovative magnetoresistive head technology is for the time being a closely guarded exclusivity. Maybe IBM have learned something from their "giveaway" attitude to the PC technology they pioneered. As is usual with new technologies, manufacturers manage the expectations of their clients and the savvy of their engineers carefully. Not too much performance at first, a bit more later on, then a bit more, until the last drop of potential has been squeezed out of the technology, (and the last bean has been extracted from the clients). Thus Magstar capacity, which is today of 10 Gigs uncompressed per cartridge is set to double, and then to quadruple over the lifetime of the product. The 3590 would appear to have won over the hearts and minds of the seismic acquisition and processing industry. This is a highly significant coup for both IBM and 3M who manufacture the tapes that will become de-facto standard issue in the estimated 300 seismic processing centres around the world.

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