Tape-Services: More than just recovering data from legacy tapes

Tuesday, 29 May 2018 by Michael Nuncic

Hardly any other storage medium is talked about so passionately. No, it is not the Cloud, but about the dinosaur of storage technology, the magnetic tape. Sometimes it is said that this medium and its technology are close to extinction, sometimes it is said that it will be in use for more decades to come.

In recent years, the dead-believed medium is again in the focus of IT experts and IT managers of enterprises alike. The reason for this is the enormous and exponential data growth, e.g. by the real-time acquisition of many device data by sensors or by the input of users on websites. For example, a large amount of data in research is collected by sensors, filtered by big data computers in data centres, analysed and evaluated, and then stored afterwards. Even in e-commerce or search engine operators enormous amounts of data are recorded and processed every day.

However, the technical possibilities to collect a lot of data and to use it profitably or profitably has a decisive disadvantage: More data means more data to be stored. But where should the additional storage space come from? What a private individual could possibly do without difficulty by either buying more hard drives or moving his or her data to the cloud is no longer possible for businesses, large or small. The cost is just too big.

One solution is the dinosaurs of storage media - called the magnetic tape or tape. The advantage of the magnetic tapes: they are extremely durable and can store data for more than 30 years if properly stored. The media as such are significantly cheaper than e.g. HDD or SSD hard drives (between double and six times cheaper compared to HDDs and up to ten times cheaper than SSDs) and they consume no or significantly less power when not in use. In addition, in recent years, more and more capacity has been achieved in the storage space oft he tapes, so that the former lead here by the hard disks is melting more and more.

For this reason, for example - many unnoticed - Google's large data centres redundantly store their data on Enterprise Tape Systems. So they make sure this way that the data can be restored in case of failure of their fast hard disk servers. The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland also stores many of its collected data in a huge tape library. The reason is simply that the researchers need a certain amount of time to process and analyze the data, despite their high-end computers, and that all data must first be stored until they are used for new analysis and calculations. The researchers at the CERN passed the 200 Petabyte milestone in July last year already. In both cases, this means that they operate huge archive systems, for which the data are only requested for specific needs.

The End of the backup tapes - long live the archive tape

Unlike in the past, it does not make sense to save daily, weekly, or monthly backups on a tape system. Although the same cost factors continue to apply here as well, with the new data protection regulation GDPR and the requirement to find personal data in emails or in other old files in the shortest possible time and to erase it safely, if this is not a high-end tape library, which is permanently available, backing up to tape is no longer a workable solution.

Archive tapes - magnetic tapes, that store data from project, that have been completed for a long time or that do not need to be accessed often - will continue to have their right to exist in the future. Especially here, the tape shows its strengths – They are durable, hold large storage space and they are cheap.

Archive tapes must be maintained, too!

Despite the fact that tapes can be stored for a long time, this does not mean that they can be easily read out and reused after 10, 20 or 30 years. Physical problems such as torn apart or corroded tapes with proper storage are rarely a topic. However, what often happens is that simply after this long retention neither the appropriate hardware as the tape drives, the drivers and the matching transmission cable are present, nor the respective archive software with which the data was stored on the tapes. In addition, some of these archive solutions - and in many cases even old backup software solutions are no longer running on new or modern operating systems, so that many challenges arise here, too.

Another problem is when it comes to very old tape technologies and formats that usually have not been used for several years anymore. Some of these dinosaur tapes such as ADR, AIT or IBM 7-, 9- or 18-track tapes are hardly used today and spare parts for the right hardware are therefore almost no longer available.

Think of tape migration and other tape services early

Many companies have been using tapes for decades and are now facing in their archives a mountain of unreadable magnetic tapes. At this point, a specialized tape data recovery service provider like Ontrack comes into play. Not only do the Ontrack experts possess working tape hardware of the past 40 years, they also have the right archive and backup solutions that were used in the past. So these so-called legacy tapes can be extracted and read out by them.

As with the data recovery from a hard disk or an SSD / Flash memory, the read out data are stored on a server and the original medium is not touched, so that it takes no further damage during the process. That is because a data recovery on the original should generally never be done.

After all data has been copied from one or more tape sets to a server, then it goes to the data recovery. And that can either be relatively easy and fast or just hard and time consuming. As with a data recovery from a hard drive, it depends very much on what was stored on the tape years ago and with which backup or archive software. Depending on what mechanical damage the tape has suffered over the decades, this has an impact on the stored data. For this reason, the archive treasures on tape should be checked again and again.

Prefer to migrate data earlier than later

In many cases, companies' tape archives contain treasures. Whether from the research and development department or from production, the data collected must not only be available for later - possibly legally required - examinations, but can also be important for many of today's tasks. In many cases, especially regarding sensitive data, they must be kept for decades. Thus, in an aircraft accident or a ship or power plant disaster 20-year-old data can be enormously important at one time. Accessing the data fast can then be vital for a company to survive.

Because of these reasons, it makes sense not only to test its tapes and hardware according to specified time intervals, but if you're dealing with obsolete tapes and tape technologies that still need to be kept for years to come, consider migrating to the latest LTO tape storage generation.

The advantage of such a migration is not only that the LTO technology has now become the standard, but that the new tape drives can be addressed by virtually any network computer using the Linear Tape Filesystem (LTFS). With LTFS, which has been available for some years now, accessing data from these tapes is much easier than before.

Conclusion: So there are many reasons why tape will not disappear for a long time. But tapes, like any other medium and technology, must be adapted to constantly changing progress in technology. To store his tapes in the dry cellar archive, waiting for 30 years and then getting them out again is definitely not enough. Checking his archive or "upgrading" from a data recovery service provider specializing in tape migration to the latest tape technology makes sense in many cases, often protects against penalties or supports employees with the long-forgotten, but still valuable information. Checking your archive at precisely defined time intervals or "upgrading" old tape from specialized tape recovery service provider like Ontrack onto the latest tape technology makes much more sense in many cases, since it often protects against penalties or supports employees with long forgotten, but still valuable information.

For more information on Ontrack tape services see https://www.ontrack.com/en-au/tape


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