Tape archives: What you don’t know can hurt you

Thursday, 22 October 2015 by Stuart Burrows

If your only exposure to the world of data storage has been in the context of a small to medium-sized business or a startup, you might think of magnetic tape as a relic from another era of enterprise computing. Once the de facto standard for long-term data retention, the format now has competition in an age of cloud backups and tumbling HDD prices.

Nonetheless, rumours of the magnetic tape's demise have been greatly exaggerated. According to an Information Age article from September 2014, all ten of the world's biggest banks and telecom firms, as well as eight of the world's ten biggest pharmaceutical companies, are tape users. And with data growing at an accelerated rate, there's more need than ever for organisations to invest in low-cost, high-volume storage for offline data.

Even though tape archives have long-term archive advantages, they do need to be looked after. It can be tempting to think that archived business records are out of sight, out of mind once they're filed away in a format proven to last upwards of decades, but this is a mistake. The reasons for creating a tape archive aren't trivial (regulatory compliance, disaster recovery...), and you don't want to discover at the critical moment that your archives are unreliable.

Here's why reviewing your tape archives is an important component of your overall data lifecycle management strategy.

Some tapes might be unlabelled

Obviously, you can't run a successful tape archive if you can't say for sure what resides on some of your tapes. Unlabelled media is unfortunately a common occurrence and can have a wide range of repercussions, among them legal risk. The data stored on a tape might be kept for longer than the mandated retention period, for example, or the organisation might be unable to respond in time to a regulatory request.

The other issue is that if you're attempting to restore a backup, poor labelling can add more than a few hours of downtime to the overall costs incurred by your business.

Damage might occur in storage

Stored correctly, magnetic tapes can last for decades, but the keyword really is 'correctly.' All sorts of damage can occur to tapes in storage and transit, so it's worth conducting regular reviews to check that your data is still recoverable. Dampness, temperature extremes, fire and smoke damage are just a few of the things that can render tapes useless without expert intervention. Reviewing the tapes regularly will prevent you from finding out there is an issue when you are in a time-sensitive situation.

You might need to migrate to a new archive system

Some organisations run into trouble when they're trying to restore data from tape archives because they no longer have the hardware or software required to do so. If you're storing business records from two to three decades ago, it's likely your IT infrastructure has gone through more than a few renewals in the interim.

Conducting a review of your tape archives should help you to determine whether or not the format of the data would be an issue or a bottleneck in a disaster recovery scenario, requiring a migration to a new system.

Some data might need to be destroyed

If you don't have a formal data destruction policy in place, your tape archive may contain data that you're required by law to delete or modify. This could include personal information on customers that you no longer have a reason to retain, as well as documents relating to former business partners.

Magnetic tapes can be securely destroyed using a degausser or shredder.

Develop a tape archive management process to make your life easier

Finally, you’ll want to develop a consistent process for managing your tape archives. Our recent global survey shows that IT administrators still struggle with legacy backup tapes and face challenges when asked to quickly identify and access data needed for internal or external use. No one has the bandwidth or desire to dig thru dusty boxes of tapes every time there’s a need for archive retrieval. The first step is understanding exactly what has been archived. It’s important to have a detailed list, or catalog, of exactly what has been archived and when, including all of the specifics, or metadata, that pertains to each archived tape. This can be tricky if you have archives spanning several years and various backup hardware and software solutions.

Following the guidelines above will make your tape archive retrievals much more manageable, and more importantly, more compliant, while ensuring they don’t become the weak link in your disaster recovery plan.