Why The "Tape Is Dead" Myth Is Even More Laughable Now

By Jay McCall

While it may be true that the number of companies that are starting to see the value of a BDR (backup and disaster recovery) solutions is increasing, it seems like disputes around the best way to backup clients' digital assets is on the rise as well. One topic that's often at the center of such debates is tape backup. I recently spoke with Bill Trautman, director of storage technology at DataSpan, to get some clarity on this topic. Trautman has more than 30 years of experience in the IT industry, working in both a sales and technical capacity at companies such as NetApp, Sun, Apple, Lexmark, and GCC Technologies. Check out what he had to say about this topic.

1. What role does tape backup play in your business?
(Trautman): Tape for data backup still plays a role in many IT shops, but not to the degree that it did five years ago. Today many shops have replaced daily tape backup with disk backup solutions because they greatly improve the speed for backup and recovery. When combined with deduplication technology, the disk backup solutions can retain weeks, if not months’ worth of backups. And when it is presented as a virtual tape library (VTL) solution — like the FalconStor VTL — it makes for a fairly easy integration into the existing backup infrastructure. Where tape still comes into play is in cost and portability. Data must be taken off site from the data center, and many enterprise data centers still consider tape to be the best media to use to move tens or hundreds of terabytes of data backups off site.

2. Do you see tape’s role diminishing, remaining steady, or growing? Explain.
(Trautman): We have seen tape's role diminish over the last five to seven years as measured by declining tape sales revenue. That revenue decline can be attributed to two factors. One, tape for backup is being replaced by spinning disk backup appliances. Two, the capacity of tapes, especially the industry standard LTO format, has continued to increase while the price per cartridge remains fairly constant. LTO1 had a native capacity of 100 GB when it was introduced in 2000. LTO6, just now coming to market, has a native capacity of 2.5 TB. Over a 12-year period, that's a reduction of 25 times the original number of tapes needed to run a backup job. As an interesting aside, this past year we actually saw tape sales remain steady year-over-year, if not bump up a little. While the revenue generated from tape sales seven years ago will probably not be matched again on an annual basis, tape is quickly becoming the preferred long-term archive media. With the introduction of linear tape file systems (LTFS) on LTO5, the concerns about being able to read data from a tape in the future have been virtually eliminated. The LTFS format makes it possible to present a standard file system view of the data stored on the tape. This file system view makes reading files stored on the tape similar to reading files stored on disk or removable flash drives.

3. Do you have a specific example showing where tape backup was a more viable solution for a customer than other backup media options?
(Trautman): The situation that we see most often that continues to drive tape for backup is the need to get the data off site for safekeeping. While backup to disk appliance is a fast and proven method for data backup, replicating that data to another similar appliance in a distant location can be challenging. First there is the need for an additional secure, data-ready location. Oftentimes, that means that companies must buy space in a co-location facility, which can be expensive. Then there is the cost of the second disk backup appliance, as well as the need to manage it. If that isn't enough of a challenge, the WAN can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Many companies are operating with a very low bandwidth; it is amazing how many T1's we still see. With the need to push hundreds if not thousands of GBs of data changes per night, even a T3 at 45 Mbps will probably not be adequate. Finally, if there is a corruption in the data, replicating that corruption to a distant location offers zero protection. As Google demonstrated in March of 2011, the only reliable way to restore corrupted data (Gmail in this case) is to restore from tape with a clean data set.

4. How long do you see this technology remaining a viable data storage medium and why?
(Trautman): While the disk array manufacturers have been pushing the notion that tape is dead, the reality is that tape is here to stay for the foreseeable future. For long-term archive and as a part of a comprehensive backup strategy, there is no other media that is as cost-effective, portable and long-lasting as tape. While the reputation of tape has been that of an unreliable, hard-to-use, hard-to-manage medium, the truth is just the opposite. LTO has come a long way in providing a media that is far more reliable than disk by an order of magnitude, lasts at least four times as long as disk, and has a cost/GB that disk can't touch.

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