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Innovation is Only Part of What is Driving the Renewed Interest in Tape

Yesterday the first ever Tape Summit kicked off at the Sunset Station Hotel and Casino in Henderson, NV, which is about 15 miles southeast of the Las Vegas strip. The opening night began with a keynote by Spectra Logic’s VP of Marketing, Molly Rector, who cited a recent article by Storage Switzerland’s George Crump where he said (paraphrasing) that what is saving tape is the same thing that saved Apple: innovation. I agree with his sentiments in part but I see innovation as only part of what is spurring tape’s growth.

To dismiss or minimize the importance that innovation has played in the renewed interest in tape would be irresponsible on my part. The introduction of LTFS (Linear Tape File System) last year so that tape could be accessed in a manner similar to networked storage systems (NAS specifically) was a HUGE step forward for the tape industry. This broke its age-old tie with archiving and backup software which were previously needed in order to manage data on tape.

Rector mentioned in her keynote that what had in part prompted Spectra Logic and others to bring forward this LTFS standard at that time was an upsurge in requests 18 months ago from customers who wanted to certify their applications with Spectra’s (and other’s) tape libraries. Their customers wanted to keep data accessible in a near-line archive but could not afford to do so using disk so they began to more aggressively explore certifying their different applications with tape libraries so they could archive data on tape.

LTFS eliminated the need for each application to certify with each vendor’s tape library. Now any application that was certified to work with LTFS could work with any tape library that supported LTFS. This shortened the development and certification time for both the customer and the tape library provider. (At least, that’s the way it is supposed to work in theory. Whether or not this has been proven out in the real world, I do not know as I have no conclusive evidence to say one way or the other.)

But it was this type of innovation (LTFS) that has enabled tape to remain a viable and growing technology even as disk is more predominantly used as a primary target for both archive and backup. In this respect, innovation has enabled tape to survive and thrive even as it was possibly facing its greatest threat ever.

However what I see as an even bigger reason that tape is continuing to thrive is that tape providers themselves recognize, understand and accept that how tape is being used in customer environments has permanently evolved and changed.

Granted, there were statistics presented yesterday in Rector’s keynote that suggest that as much as 50% of all businesses still use tape as a primary target for backup. Further, in conversations that I have had with others in SMBs, there are still having “Come to Jesus” moments when the light bulb goes on and they understand why disk is a better backup target than tape. So in that respect, tape may never completely die in its role as a primary backup target.

However in the enterprise space, I would argue that very few of these organizations view the right, ongoing role for tape for them as being their primary backup target. So to their credit, tape library vendors have been mature enough to accept this new customer viewpoint and then have begun to innovate with that new customer viewpoint in mind.

So this is the real reason why I think tape will survive and grow going forward. Innovation for the point of innovation is pointless. My own company has a number of really cool innovations that are bringing in zero dollars in terms of revenue. So in the same respect if tape library providers had just sought to continue to produce higher capacity tape cartridges with faster speeds, I question how much success they would be having right now.

But by listening to their customers, understanding how their customers want to use tape in their organization so they can take advantage of tape’s most prized properties and then innovating with purpose, tape has more than a fighting chance to survive. It stands a good chance of gaining market share simply because tape has made itself both easier to manage and more cost-effective so organizations can continue to justify leveraging tape in their infrastructure in this new context.

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