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I’ve Changed My Mind About Tape

I have to admit that once upon a time, I was on the “I hate tape” bandwagon. In the past, I spent too many days, nights and weekends as an administrator troubleshooting failed backups and then doing slow recoveries from a media I barely understood (or wanted to understand). But more recently I have found myself breaking through my “I hate tape” mentality in large part because of the way LTO technology has revolutionized tape backup and the fact that tape is doing a good job of carving out a new niche in today’s disk-centric world.

Don’t get me wrong – I never saw tape as an “evil” technology or that tape was dead as it is far too widely adopted and there will always be organizations that use it for one purpose or another. It just seemingly had some challenges that that made me believe it’s better days were behind it.
So what made me change my mind about tape?  I first suspected that some of my perceptions about tape were incorrect during a recent briefing that I had with CommVault regarding its Remote Operations Management Service (ROMS).  CommVault was doing a live demonstration of how ROMS enables third parties to manage CommVault’s data management software. But what caught my eye during the demo was that it was showing a near 100% success rate backing up to tape!
The demo was based on a live feed from an undisclosed CommVault customer and the statistic immediately called into question other statistics that cite tape backups only succeed 60 – 80% of the time. While my own experience had been that the success rates of tape backups were somewhat erratic, this demo suggested to me that part of the reason backup to tape may have received a bad rap in the past is because the backups were not properly configured or managed.

Shortly after that demo, I had the opportunity to speak with Overland Storage’s Director of Product Marketing, Peri Grover. While our conversation was originally intended to focus on the NEO S-Series‘ new support for LTO-5, we also had a chance to discuss why, in the past, some people may have been left with a bad taste in their mouth when it came to tape-based backup.  She said there were a number of factors that probably contributed to those perceptions:

  • Tape formats were proprietary.  8mm, 9840, 9940, AIT and DLT/SDLT were just a few of the tape formats that were released and supported by single storage providers. While each technology offered advancements at the time, in each case it created a monopoly for each tape format. Tape drives and cartridges of each format could only be bought from a single provider which often left the end user with limited choices, higher prices and a market where less competition tended to result in lower standards of quality and customer service.
  • Slow retrieval times. Because tape is a serial device, retrieving specific files or chunks of data from a tape cartridge meant that the tape drive had to read through (in some cases) the entire length of a tape and could not go to the specific location where the file or chunk of data was located.  In the early days of tape backup, when tape drives could only access data at rates of 1-2 MB/second (or less), this meant access to your data was a time consuming process.
  • Unreliable. The introduction of tape technologies such as 8mm opened the door for use of tape backup to the masses because for the first time users had access to lots of storage capacity on a small, affordable form factor. However, some technologies that had originally been adapted from consumer-based platforms were suddenly thrust into enterprise-class mission critical data environments for which they really were not designed.

It was this combination of variables that resulted in tape leaving a bad impression with many in small and mid-sized enterprises. However the introduction of the LTO format, and most recently LTO-5, has addressed many of the negative connotations that people historically made when they thought of tape.

  • Faster retrieval times. With the introduction of LTO-5, tape-based backup and archive now operates at speeds of 140 MB/sec or 504 GB/hour uncompressed, which means that unless you need the near-instantaneous recoveries that disk provides tape can now give you a lot of data back in a very short time.
  • Better access methods. The recent introduction of LTO-5 also includes a hidden jewel: tape partitioning. This feature is one which allows the tape cartridge to look like a hard drive, CD, DVD or memory stick to the operating system, and allows you to “drag & drop” data to and from the tape. In effect, an LTO5 tape can look like a huge portable hard drive.
  • Lower cost of ownership. LTO is an open and standardized format that allows multiple manufacturers to provide tape drives, tape libraries and data cartridges. This competitive environment encourages vendors to produce high quality products at competitive prices, ultimately providing a lower overall cost of ownership for end users.  
  • More tools in the data protection toolbox.  With complete data protection solutions that include a disk-based front-end for instantaneous access to short-term data and a tape-based back-end for high-capacity storage of long-term data, and improved data management software that accommodates these disk-to-tape solutions, tape really shines by doing what it does best … affordably storing large amounts of data.

In the last decade the maturation and stabilization of the tape market has addressed many of the concerns that led some users to dislike tape.  The “I hate tape” and “I want tape out of here” attitudes that I sometimes encounter are residual emotional backlashes to previous negative experiences with tape — some of which were the result of improperly implemented archive and backup configurations and tape formats being used in settings where they really did not belong.

I have come to understand that many of the problems that people perceive tape to have either no longer exist; can be mitigated with proper data management techniques; or, can be overcome with the use of reliable tape libraries such as those provided by Overland Storage.  So, not only is it premature for anyone to assume that tape is unreliable or impractical for use in today’s world, it might be that tape’s best days lie yet ahead.


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