Company Dark Data on Corporate Tapes

Monday, 2 June 2014 by Marcel Mascunan

Dark data is the everyday operational data generated by companies as they go about their business. Defined by Gartner as the “information assets organisations collect, process and store during regular business activities, but generally fail to use for other purpose”, it includes log files and archives that are never analysed or monetised. They just exist as a compliance measure, usually stored on legacy tapes, waiting for the day when they may need to be examined or perhaps migrated to a new platform. When that day comes for your organisation, how ready will you be to locate and access the data you seek?

Despite the fact that tape is a 60-plus year old technology, it's the media of choice for storing dark data. This is because tape is cheap, offering a far lower price per terabyte compared to disk. It can be used to archive huge amounts of data, is relatively easily stored in vast, energy efficient libraries and delivers a reasonable access time. It's all very positive.

That is, until you try to retrieve some of your dark data and discover that your legacy tape drives aren't working or the tapes are degrading. It's often impossible to get vendor support for out-dated equipment and you may no longer have the in-house expertise to deal with the problems.

Among the customers we see, most tape recovery requirements fall into one of the following five categories:

  • Compliance: Bound by industry regulations as well as a corporation’s own document retention policy, a tape or series of tapes are put back into circulation before their end of life (compliance) date, effectively deleting data required for compliance purposes.
  • Litigation: The legal department requires data from tapes but the company no longer has the necessary software or the hardware resources to extract the data before the deadline.
  • Migration: New backup software is purchased, requiring a large volume of tapes (and staff time) to migrate to the new software.
  • Damaged: A natural disaster causes damage to a set of tapes, requiring cleanroom techniques and parts to recover the lost data.
  • End of Life: A corporation has allowed its tape software license to lapse or has disposed of tape reading hardware, and no longer has the equipment needed to perform the recovery.

The point about dark data on tapes is that it can only be an enterprise goldmine if you are able to access the data and realise its value. Achieving this requires a strategy, care and vigilance. A little common sense also helps. Following are six simple steps that are a good starting point for protecting your dark data and your tape archives:

  1. If you plan to restore or retrieve data in-house, make sure you keep legacy hardware and software for all types of tapes in storage; if don't have the space or expertise, use a validated tape specialist to perform ad-hoc restores.
  2. Make sure tapes are correctly labelled and catalogued so they can be easily located when needed.
  3. Test your tapes at least once a year by reading a random sample.
  4. Store tapes in a dry place and off of the ground. If tapes get water damaged, keep them wet until they are received by a data recovery company.
  5. Use a degausser to securely delete tapes that have reached their end of lifecycle.
  6. Above all, make sure you keep the contact details for a tape and data recovery company close at hand. You never know when you'll need to call on them.