Tape storage on a roll

By : |July 4, 2014 0

BANGALORE, INDIA: Despite the merchants of doom, tape has not – as expected – died the death which was predicted. Instead it’s fought gamely against other storage solutions and has, quite nicely, stood the test of time.
Tape undoubtedly plays a pivotal and expanding role across a wide variety of industries including media, education and healthcare, and organisations are continually seeking longer-term storage and data retention solutions. The tape debate and obvious misconceptions continue to baffle.

A misconception intensified

‘Tapeless workflows’, for the best part, did cause and still cause quite a stir across many industries. Conversations have been rife with talk of how best to ‘manipulate existing infrastructures to become “tapeless”.  The most obvious reason for this shift was in fact pretty simple. As time-to-data or time-to-restore/recovery became key factors for many organisations, so too did the need to move to a tapeless environment, which would in turn allow quick and easy access to the growing mound of content being generated daily. It was at that point that disk-based backup, and more recently cloud-based back up, quickly started to invade a market which was historically dominated by tape.

So is there a future for tape in the market? It’s true that in the last couple of years we’ve seen the demand for tape as near-line storage decline, but if there really was no use for tape, then why would we – and others - spend time investing in the technology’s development? Because tape is still highly valued for archiving purposes and as the need to archive and store data increases, the need for tape does too.
Tape’s got game

Although both disk backup and cloud storage have surpassed tape in areas such as backup, tape is by far the most cost-effective technology for long-term data retention. So while disk has become the preferred choice for the initial backup copy, most organisations realise it doesn’t make sense to store backups on disk forever. Object storage is emerging as a tier for more actively archived data, but at some point it makes sense to migrate those backups onto tape. This disk-to-disk-to-tape tiered storage model has become best practice for backup environments, and the advantages of tape are even greater in long-term archives. For example, storing 5 PB of archive data over a 10-year period on tape offers savings of more than 80 pc in comparison to disk. In many cases just the power and cooling costs required to keep disk systems running actually exceed the total cost of tape based archives. 
Furthermore, where content is king and ultimately being driven by the consumer in many industries, tape stands up strong. The media industry is just one example of this, and broadcasters, production and post-production facilities alike simply can’t live without it. As we see more and more content and data generated from HD cameras, and the growing focus on being able to re-monetise content in different ways, storing everything on disk simply isn’t feasible from a cost standpoint.
Take Poland’s leading pay-TV provider, nc+ as an example. It currently has 200 TB of disk available for archiving, but also has a huge 1.5 PB of archived content, which they expect to grow by another petabyte in the coming year.  As a result, they’ve opted for a tape library specially optimised for big data environments. Storing this content with the right data storage solution, has now become more important than ever. 
But it’s not just media. Let’s quickly consider how tape is being used across other industries. Sectors such as intelligence, oil and gas and life sciences view tape as essential for storing and protecting the data volumes they generate. Researchers dealing with genomic sequencing data have to move it off disk quickly after it’s generated in order to make space available on disk for more data. It’s imperative to have access to raw data to be able to re-work or re-analyse initial findings, so this data still needs to be available for researchers wanting to work with it months or even years later. You can see similar scenarios in many industries; data is captured; readily available to be accessed fast and instantaneously during its early life; then stored to be used again later on.

Data for many is extremely valuable or hard (if not impossible) to recreate, and with others, it’s merely the need to keep content around so it’s “quickly” accessible by their users. For those reasons it has value and needs to be kept forever.
Will the real role of tape please stand up
Tape has had some advancements over the last few years, including Linear Tape File System (LTFS) technology. This enhancement allows tape to be used almost as if it were a hard disk and provide a nearline offering (for example through the ability to drag and drop files, or perform point and click restores).

And tape in the cloud? Yes, another milestone is the growth of tape and its introduction into the cloud. Use of tape as a storage tier in the cloud is starting to gather momentum. Service providers with large cloud-based data centres are waking up to the economic benefits of storing data on tape. Very large tape libraries are being used in these environments to either back up primary data in the cloud, or as a storage tier for “cold” data that has not been accessed for a long time.
A future in tape
Tape still has an important role to play and major brands are still investing in tape-based solutions – from Google, which relied on tape to restore its Gmail data, to Amazon, whose Glacier cloud-based archive service is reported by industry insiders to be based on tape.

We see tape remaining at the heart of storage infrastructures and as we move into 2014, we expect to see even more of tape, especially as cloud-based storage gathers some more momentum. However you want to look at it, the prediction of the death of tape is perennially premature.

(The author is Strategic Marketing Manager, Quantum)

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