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Tape is Back in the Storage Conversation at Fall SNW 2010

Of all the topics that I thought I might be writing about after my first day in attendance at the fall Storage Networking World (SNW) conference in 2010, I did not think tape would be it. In fact, it was not even on my radar screen walking into the show. But after meeting with the Ultrium LTO team yesterday at SNW, it is clear that tape is back in the storage conversation and those arguing for its broader adoption and continued use have much more to talk about than its power savings, larger capacities and faster speeds.

Over the past few years (OK, the last decade), tape has been about as exciting to write about as sliced bread. (My apologies to all you sliced bread lovers out there.) Every other year or so I would meet with the LTO team and they would tell me about how they had doubled their capacity and increased the speeds of the tape drives but other than that nothing had fundamentally changed.

Oh sure, they may have added WORM capabilities 5-7 years ago that two insurance companies in downtime NYC now use (speaking tongue in check now) and encryption which many more financial institutions should be using. However for the most part it was thanks for the update, thanks for the coffee and I’ll see you in two years when you tell me the same thing again.

This year was completely different. Yes, we spent a minute (if that) discussing increases in capacity and performance that LTO-5 offer (though I don’t even recall what they are as I write this) but more importantly spent some time discussing the new use cases for tape that LTO-5’s new Linear Tape File System (LTFS) technology creates.

The major (and I would almost classify it as a breakthrough) advance that LTFS provides is that LTFS changes tape from application dependent to application independent.  Up to now, any time someone wanted to store or retrieve data from tape, it required a third party backup application such as CommVault® Simpana® 9 or Symantec NetBackup to do it so it was not very user friendly.

Oh sure, there are some UNIX folks that know UNIX well enough to mount and unmount tapes and can then run the tar commands to write data to these tapes. But, hello, how much business value does that really add in this day and age and who really has time to do that? Let’s try zero so with so little end user or application friendliness, tape had become extremely application dependent.

However with LTFS, tape cartridges look just like the C: or D: drive on your PC. LTFS formats the tape so an operating system can recognize it such that files can be dragged and dropped from your hard drive to the tape and vice versa.

To store and retrieve data to tape there is no special application or even any special knowledge needed in order to do it. All you need to know how to do is your basic copy and paste. Hello usability. Granted, this still only works on Linux and Mac with Windows functionality on the way and a special LTFS driver has to be loaded on the operating system but the important item here is that it switches tape from “hard to use’ to “easy to use.”

As to why LTFS puts tape back in the storage conversation, it’s simple. By tape adopting some of the usability features of disk, it can once again be used to store large data files that really are not well suited for disk such as audio, image and video files. These file types neither compress nor deduplicate well and, 30 days after they are created, may rarely be accessed and need to be archived.

This is actually where tape’s features of low power consumption and longevity come into play. By storing this data out to tape, the data is just as accessible as it was on disk (though the initial access to the file may take longer due to the need for the tape to reposition) without introducing disk’s costs.

LTFS also addresses another historical concern of tape: data migration from prior generations of tape to current generations. How many users do not have old tapes sitting around either because it is too much work to migrate the data from the old tape to the newer, higher capacity tape or because you cannot even read the data from the old tape to begin with because no one knows what application stored the data to the tape in the first place and so they can’t copy it to the new tape cartridge.

Using LTFS, as future generations of LTO are released, all one has to do is put an LTO-5 tape and an LTO-7 tape in two separate tape drives and easily move the data from the LTO-5 tape cartridge to the new LTO-7 tape cartridge. Data migration can then occur without any application dependencies plus you can potentially reduce the total number of tapes under management by as much as 75% since LTO-7 is forecast to have 4x as much storage capacity as LTO-5.

I never believed for one minute that tape was dead but over the last decade it certainly appeared to have become irrelevant. LTFS changes all of that. Not only has LTFS put tape back in the storage conversation, it makes it possible for tape to even potentially be considered for use as a storage device in the cloud.

Further, since LTFS now looks like disk, why can’t it sit behind a deduplication solution such as one from FalconStor that can use any type of disk but now store deduplicated data to tape? There are probably reasons why it can’t work right now but who is to say that cannot change in the future?

So is LTFS ready for prime time today? No as there are still a lot of particulars that need to be worked out. But just the fact that I am talking about it, examining new ways that tape can be used and that there are already practical use cases for LTFS as it stands today means that other people are likely having the same thoughts as me as to the new possibilities that tape offers as opposed to relegating it to the path to nowhere.


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