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In A New Hope, Admiral Motti says that the Death Star plans were stored on data-tapes.

“Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data-tapes”*

I always figured this was something that would just be conveniently ignored in future installments, but Rogue One doubles down on this by making it clear that the Scarif facility is storing the Death Star plans on a data-tape.

Given that holograms, droids, datapads, and other advanced electronics exist, why does the galaxy far, far away use such as primitive technology as data-tapes at all, especially for something as important as the Death Star plans (which can be transferred to whatever un-tapelike thing the rebels hand off to Leia)?

Irregular Webcomic #67 Irregular Webcomic #67 by David Morgan-Mar, licensed under CC by NC-SA 3.0, (C) 2002-2017

* Just realized that Motti’s really rubbing salt on the wound since the stolen data-tapes were almost certainly destroyed by the Death Star’s destruction of Scarif and Vader surely knows that.

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    Do we know that "tape" is not a throwback term in the way 21st-century anglophones say "telephone" to mean "pocket computer" or "camera" to mean "solid-state light sensor"? – Graham Lee Nov 17 '17 at 14:38
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    @motoDrizzt It makes perfect sense, if the word that's used in Star Wars is the word that was used for magnetic tapes when their technology was less advanced. – Mike Scott Nov 17 '17 at 16:07
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    ...said the man about a universe where light "sabers" are the pinnacle of weaponry... – gowenfawr Nov 17 '17 at 16:12
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    @GrahamLee Or how, even in a digital medium, we store "documents" in "folders" and keep messages in a "mailbox", and we "cut" and "paste" when editing those documents? – KSmarts Nov 17 '17 at 17:31
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    (Out of universe) even today, tape is still in many cases a preferred and a superior backup method. I just got out of a research meeting where we were talking about processing some (recently generated) data that's stored on tapes. – NeutronStar Nov 17 '17 at 19:53

10 Answers 10

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Because it's the backup and backups are better on tape.

The fewer moving parts an object has, the more robust it is. Additionally, the long term degradation of electronic memory cells is a problem. So when you make a back up of something, you want it to be able to survive a long time. Tape can do this.

Technology in Star Wars has advanced enough to create a 512-million exanode capacity monomolecular-switching binary tape the size of a book. In English, that means they are using nanotechnology to encode data into the tape at the molecular level.

Remember, this is the backup, it's not the version that will be actively accessed, it doesn't need to be quick like flash memory is (that said, it is still pretty fast in real life).

And finally, it is much (much) cheaper. In real life, hard disk drives (HDDs) cost about 50% more per GB than tape, and solid state drives (SSDs), which are far more robust than HDDs, are a whopping 850% more expensive per GB than tape.

For a real world example, Google made headlines in 2011 when it was discovered that they kept long term backups on tape. So it's not a bad method of data storage at all.

In short, tape is the superior backup method because it is cheaper, has high capacity, greater reliability, and better longevity.

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    Especially once you account for cosmic radiation, given that they were a space faring people. – ratchet freak Nov 17 '17 at 16:57
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    Would also mention cost - 15 TB tape is $80, but 10+TB hard disks are over $300 and SSD's over 15TB are like $1000. We're talking orders of magnitude more expensive. The Empire is still a bureaucracy... pencil-pushers are always gonna grab the cheaper option. – Jeutnarg Nov 17 '17 at 17:22
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    I'm not sure I can agree with your statement "The less moving parts an object has, the more robust it is" as an argument for tapes over SDDs. – Mr Lister Nov 17 '17 at 18:00
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    @MrLister The lab I worked at in the 90s and naughties used tape for mass data storage (hundreds of terabytes in an era when that was a lot). When the mechanism on a tape I used jammed they actually pulled the cartridge apart and moved the spool to another case. Took days to get the data rather than the few hours the robotic silo usually delivered because of the need for human intervention, but it was delivered intact. They also recovered data off a mechanically stretched tape for a buddy. That stuff is so simple that the data survives even fairly rough handling in a retrievable form. – dmckee Nov 18 '17 at 1:03
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    @ToddWilcox: Nobody competent, and certainly not the wildly successful technological behemoth that is Google, would deliberately choose a storage medium for backups that they deem inferior just because they "hope" they will never need to restore from them. That's complete nonsense. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 19 '17 at 4:06
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The out-of-universe answer is that the original films were written in the 70's, and SF&F usually has some basis in truth. The idea of flash drive equivalents probably didn't even occur to Lucas while he was writing it. It was carried on in Rogue One to enforce continuity.

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    This seems like a pretty reasonable out-of-universe answer, but it seems like OP is looking for an in-universe answer. – Edlothiad Nov 17 '17 at 16:21
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    It seems like it, but OP didn't explicitly say so. So this is a valid answer. – amflare Nov 17 '17 at 16:24
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    @DVK-on-Ahch-To - No, to be a good OOU answer it should contain some evidence. – amflare Nov 17 '17 at 16:32
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    Hard drive technology wasn't widely available until the mid-80's, and flash storage tech was still way off. This isn't the only case of massive tech disparity by our terms (so, them using something we'd consider basic and obsolete, while flying around in space playing holo-chess and shooting each other with blasters) in the Star Wars universe. – Orgmo Nov 17 '17 at 16:40
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    Any in-universe answer is merely a rationalization. This is the true answer. – WGroleau Nov 17 '17 at 19:17
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Tape backups have the advantages of being lighter weight and less fragile than a removable hard disk, far less expensive than Flash RAM storage (at least until the last couple years), and easily portable. Not to mention that if a high capacity tape storage format was standardized in the early days of space travel, with millions of petabytes stored that way, it might be easier to continue with that standard technology (and incremental, backward compatible capacity upgrades, like the 250 MB version of QIC-80) than to arrange to transfer every book, photograph, spreadsheet, etc. in the galaxy to a new storage format before the last "Old Republic Standard Tape System" reader became non-functional (think how hard it is to find a working 8-track player, or 9-track reel-to-reel data drive these days).

  • Correct, and the quickest way to transmit bulk data then was to put it on magnetic tape and bung it in the post. – Mick Nov 19 '17 at 22:29
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    @Mick Still is, by several orders of magnitude. Will remain that way until networks start improving much faster than storage. You can fit a staggering amount of tapes in a van, never mind a semi. – Leliel Nov 19 '17 at 23:05
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    @Leliel at least for about 23 more years – Wayne Werner Nov 20 '17 at 16:01
  • Given the relative cost of tape vs. flash RAM storage, on a cost-per-bandwidth basis, it's unlikely [cargo transporter] full of tapes will be outclassed until tape is such a specialty item it starts getting expensive again. I wonder what the bandwidth of a container ship loaded with backup tapes is? Sure, it's slow, but it carries hundreds of containers, each of which will hold tens of thousands of tape cartridges. – Zeiss Ikon Nov 20 '17 at 17:14
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    The LTO-10 standard calls for a 45 terabyte tape cartridge. Size of a cartridge is roughly 10 x 10 x 2 centimeters. Taking into account packing, you could about 40 in a single cubic foot box. You could fit 1,120 boxes in a standard 20 foot seacan, or 44,800 cartridges. A Panamax container ship can carry 5,000 seacans (224 million cartridges, 10.08 billion terabytes). Assume 1 week between North America and Europe plus a week for loading/unloading (1,209,600 seconds), that works out to about 8300 TB/s. – Keith Morrison Nov 20 '17 at 20:30
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What makes you believe data tapes are primitive?

There are many form factors we can store data on. Each form factor is built around the assumptions of how it will be used. Data tapes don't fit the way we use data today, but that doesn't make them primitive.

Data tape

This is the latest tape produced by IBM and Sony. Its data density is 201Gb per square inch. A blue ray disk tops out at about 12.5Gb/sq. in. Disk drives can beat this, coming in at around 1,340Gb/in, roughly 7 times the density. However, the tape can be ultra-thin and wound up:

Holding a backup tape

So it's not that tape is primitive, it's that its use has fallen out of style because it does not match the way we want to use data in most of our life. Perhaps, in the future, we will change our mind, and data tapes will be a real thing again.

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I once read somewhere that George Lucas wanted to keep some connection to reality when the movies were made.

It's the same reason why the headphones on the Millenium Falcon have cables attached to them because wireless signals were considered too futuristic by Lucas.

Its also a lot easier to have fluent dialogs in a movie without having to explain every detail of the universe.

As for a source, I could have sworn it was on this site but I'm having trouble finding the question.

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For surface area the square footage of a tape represents the most efficient format. No other format can store a flat surface area in such a compact volume.

A tape doesn't have to be magnetic. An advanced society could still use advanced data storage formats, but if you are limited to storing that data on a surface. Well a tape is the best approach.

  • Exactly. Optical film (silver halide) has a 500 year life expectancy, and could be used in the same manner as any optical disc. A 4x6 microfiche card could hold well on the order of 300GB utilizing Blu-Ray technology – Mad Myche Nov 20 '17 at 17:08
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    A few years ago, there was the "Gigapixel Project" -- used 12x20 inch color film to photographically record 2+ gigapixels (each pixel worth at least 24 bits of color value data, so 6+ gigabytes uncompressed). Film can handily beat that resolution -- microfiche can record as high as 1000 lines per millimeter, which makes each 4x6 card theoretically hold 15 terabytes (uncompressed, without error correction coding). Optical tape, then, could hold petabytes per reel. – Zeiss Ikon Nov 20 '17 at 17:19
  • While today's hard drives routinely hold a lot more information than 1960s-era or even 1990s-era tapes, today's best tape-storage technology can hold even more. Even if tapes are limited to a single layer of recording on the surface (unlike, e.g. Blu-Ray which holds a few independent layers), the surface area of a tape is vastly larger than the surface area of a disk. – supercat Nov 20 '17 at 22:07
  • If you can encode DNA on your tape, or if the tape is actually just built of DNA, then you have a tremendously high information density. – Wayne Werner Dec 4 '17 at 17:05
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All old science fiction books contain what was the latest and greatest at that time. For example, in books of Stanislaw Lem, data was stored on microfilms. Who would today even think of microfilms? Maybe only when watching old James Bond movies.

Star wars was created during seventies, and then tapes were high tech. If they waited 10-20 years to create star wars movies, I am sure it would be hard disk, CDs or some kind of data cubes.

The fact that data is today backed up on tapes means nothig. Technology is advancing quite fast, and nobody knows what will replace tapes (that thing probably doesn't even have a name).

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Tapes are still being used. Okay, they may not be in use for day-to-day backups any more in your typical office, but if you have a seriously high volume of data that needs to be archived, tape is still the answer: they are still being used and they are still being developed.

See this story from just a couple of months ago where Sony and IBM have made a tape system that stores 330TB on a single cartridge, and expect capacity to continue to double every year for at least another decade.

That might even give you enough storage to hold the plans to the Death Star.

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The data "tape"s in Star Wars might be actual data tapes like those of the present, but far more advanced, as others have suggested.

Or "tapes" might be a word that has changed its meaning over time, as I suggested in an answer in a thread asking about data "tapes in Star Trek.

I point out the history that explains why the control room of the Enterprise is called the "bridge" as an example of continuing to use a once accurate word to mean something different from the original meaning. Thus Star Trek and Star Wars "tapes" might not be tapes but just called tapes because tapes were originally what was used used for data storage.

Is there an explanation for the use of tapes in Star Trek?1

In addition the word "tapes" in Star Wars is translated from an alien language into English.

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If you look in this video, the same data was crammed into a thin card type device which was given to Leia. So, Star Wars universe has lots of advanced technologies and different technologies are used in different situations.

First, portable storage shouldn't be that of a much requirement as data transmission speed is high. But for different scenarios, there are different types of portable storage technologies.

Adoption of a particular data storage technology depends upon:

  • Cost

  • Computer Interface

  • Culture/ Species/ Industry involved

Second, the data tapes you saw on Scariff was way more advanced than the one you see on Earth. According to Star Wars: Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual Guide, it was Monomolecular-switching binary tape which had 512 million exanode capacity.

protected by Edlothiad Nov 20 '17 at 7:43

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