Magnetic Tape - Should It Be Backed Up Or Archived?

Written By: Ontrack

Date Published: September 06, 2022

Magnetic Tape - Should It Be Backed Up Or Archived?

Have you ever wondered what the two most frequently heard statements in regards to tape are? Yes? Well, here they are... - The magnetic tape is dead - Tape has no role in modern IT

Over the years, there have been many debates regarding the role of the oldest data storage medium, the tape. First invented in 1928 for sound recording, the tape has evolved into the most widely used and reliable media for storing data.

Why digital tape?

There are many advantages in using a magnetic tape over any other storage media. One of the advantages is its longevity. Unlike other forms of storage, tapes usually last much longer and are less susceptible to risks that modern drives exhibit.

In fact, magnetic tapes can still be read safely after 30 years, while the average hard drive will generally only last around five years. SSDs, Enterprise HDDs, and Cloud Computing also fail to offer the reliability the tape does, as they can be prone to physical and logical problems.

Data on a magnetic tape, on the other hand, can even be read after decades if it has been stored according to the manufacturer's specifications. Today’s modern storage systems rely heavily on built-in hard disks due to their higher read and write speed. But many people don’t know that the magnetic tape can also be very fast – the mere reading of a tape in some circumstances can be almost four times as fast as from a hard disk. However, writing to tape is not as fast as writing to a hard drive. So if speed isn’t a decisive advantage for using magnetic tapes, besides longevity, what is?


The cost of tape is lower in comparison to hard drives. While the cost of purchasing the main storage systems is high for both, when additional storage is needed, purchasing new tapes is much cheaper than buying the equivalent in hard disks.

Switching from a backup storage device to an archive storage device

There are still many companies that use tapes as their main backup system. Mainly due to the fact that many of these companies have never had a plan in place for storing old legacy data for internal, external, legal or regulatory inquiries. Most of these companies used tapes as their backup system due to the low cost and their ease of storage. With companies sometimes having to store data for well over 20 years, the tape was always the obvious solution.

Nowadays, with modern archive solutions getting better and cheaper, it makes no sense to use backups to store data. Backups are designed to get the environment up and running quickly in the event of a hardware or system failure resulting in data loss. Archives, on the other hand, are meant to store data, not change it. Since modern magnetic tape-based archives can even be integrated with document management systems (DMS), the document lifecycle can be defined even more precisely. For example, when a project is finished, all associated documents, emails, etc. can be stored on tape for archiving until the retention period of the data has expired. At the same time, the most important project data can be available to the employees in the hard disk-based DMS for a shorter period of time.

Modern IT collides with old IT

Although many companies have already made the transition from tape-based storage to a real archive solution, there are still decades of old backup tapes in data centers, company basements in and specialist tape storage providers. Very often, however, the necessary information about what is stored on the tapes is missing due to the long retention period. Many of the catalog files can end up being lost, or the retirement/departure of the employee responsible for the tapes is never replaced.

This can represent a great risk for the company since in many business areas the companies must be able to make very old documents available to the responsible persons in the shortest possible time e.g. for an audit. Just think of sensitive sectors like nuclear energy, pharmaceutical products or large construction projects. In all these areas, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of long-term potential problems that can require rapid data extraction.

How to solve the problem of unknown tape content?

For those organizations that still have hundreds of legacy backup tapes in their inventory and no access to the necessary hardware or software, recovering much-needed data from tapes can be a costly and time-consuming undertaking. One solution to this problem is to keep the outdated system up and running or to recover it and pay license fees. Another solution is to hire a specialist data recovery company to recover the system as quickly as possible. However, both solutions usually cost a lot of money.

Ontrack offers a much better solution to this problem with its tape (catalog) services. To be able to use this solution, all the tape media in question must first either be cataloged (when the tape catalog no longer exists) or the existing catalog is imported into a special Ontrack tape database solution. The customer can then identify the data they really need from their tapes before they order a data recovery from Ontrack. In any case, there is no need to maintain the old magnetic tape infrastructure and backup software or to pay high license fees.


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