Tape Strengthens Its Position in Backup as the Pendulum Centers; Interview with Spectra Logic CEO Nathan Thompson Part IV

Despite some claims to the contrary, the primary use case for tape remains in the context of backup. It is HOW tape is being used in the backup process that is changing. As it does, it is putting tape in a better position to solve certain data protection concerns that disk and even new flash media drives can never solve. In part IV of my interview series with Spectra Logic’s CEO Nathan Thompson, he discusses why tape will remain an integral part of backup processes for a long time to come.

Jerome: So why is using tape as a media for backup still likely to survive long term?

There is a lot of PR about tape that suggests companies have an incentive to backup to disk or move to disk. So what happened in the tape industry when Sun took over StorageTek, and then Sun by Oracle, due to all of this maneuvering, the market lost its natural leader in the tape space, which was StorageTek. This left the industry without anyone to raise their hand and explain tape’s evolving role, as disk became a backup target.

The tape industry did a poor job for many years of promoting tape’s benefits. At Spectra Logic we are committed to being the champions of tape. We see 80 percent of the world’s data stored on tape.  

In every field from genetics, manufacturing, simulation, scientific research, statistics, media and entertainment, and video surveillance, there is just no way of performing many of these tasks without a sustainable, low cost, long term media like tape.

Now, you also hear a lot about tape going away or being supplanted by disk for backup. There are places that it makes sense to backup to different media.

For example, when I create a file on my laptop that I have spent a lot of time working on, I copy that file onto a USB memory stick because if something happened to it, I would have to recreate it. It might be information I do not have access to anymore, so I would then back it up to a different media. But I would not back it up to a tape drive. I’d back it up to a memory stick or email it to myself so it ends up in an email server or something like that.

When you have a small amount of data there may be media other than tape that you may use to back it up. But most organizations that we interact with (which is literally about 85 percent of the world out there) backup to tape in some fashion.

Now they may conduct backups on a daily basis to disk. But they then copy it to tape or they make a copy on tape. In situation such as that, we have concluded that tape is less expensive.

But even if tape were more expensive than disk, it would still probably be used for data backup (to create a backup of the backup), as there are just too many things that can go wrong with disk drives.

I am not saying that disk drives are inherently bad. I am saying you may have programmatic errors, operating system errors, heat, fire, and/or floods that could cause you to lose your data if it is only stored on disk.

In this era, at this time in society, you can point out many organizations that could potentially survive the loss of their data. But for most government institutions and businesses, loss of data may mean the end of the entire enterprise. So most companies have adopted a hybrid backup strategy where they put some amount of data on disk and they make sure weekly or even daily copy backups are stored to tape just in case they have a problem.

As an analogy, compare tape-based backup to the Department of Agriculture. At a fundamental level, it needs to make sure that it has as many varieties of seed, corn, rice, barley, wheat and whatever else, because one day one of those varieties may fail you. You may need to plant an alternate variety just to make sure you have something to grow because of a virus or a plague. The Dept. of Agriculture keeps all of these grain varieties on hand so that the whole population does not starve because it is completely dependent on one genetic strain.

That is how people should look at backup to tape. When you look at the possibility of being completely wiped out by data loss, you want copies of the data residing on other media.

Jerome: Are we coming to an inflection point either now or soon where tape is “sexy” again and regains its reputation as a strategic technology?

Nathan: The pendulum will come to the center. Consider oil. The world will come to realize that it cannot stop using oil in the economy. There has been talk about completely stopping oil use–but it’s impossible. A complete energy strategy includes hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, coal, natural gas, and  oil components.

A data storage strategy is the same thing. You have to be realistic. There are things that disk is great for. There are going to be many things that flash is great for. Five years from now, I bet nobody will be able to buy a disk drive based laptop. They will all be flash.

But there will still be disk drives, servers, server farms and other applications, and there will still be tape. You may not use tape to back up your laptop or your iPad. But if it is synced to the cloud, I bet that tape is involved at some level.

My expectation is that the world will become more realistic.  The market has been re-balancing itself and that is why when you survey tape and tape library users, you see that some people have come back to tape as the pendulum swings too far.

In Part I of this interview series Nathan shares how and why Spectra Logic got its start in the tape business and what differentiates it from almost every other tape manufacturer even today.

In Part II of this interview series Nathan discusses why Spectra Logic decided to double down on tape even as many experts were forecasting its death.

In Part III of this interview series, Nathan discusses how tape libraries are maturing and evolving to meet new customer demands.

In the fifth and final part of this interview series, Nathan talks about what new features we can expect to see from tape in the future and what new roles it will be able to assume in just a few years.

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