Why Magnetic Tapes are still popular storage options today

12 February 2016 by Michael Nuncic

Magnetic tape backup damaged with exposed tape

What is magnetic tape storage?

Tape drives are one of the earliest data storage device mediums that can read and write data on a magnetic tape device. This type of storage was first invented in 1928 for sound recording purposes. In the 1950's they became one of the most reliable and common ways of storing media in a secure and convenient way.

Since the digital revolution, many people have opted for newer storage mediums such as hard disk drives, Solid State drives or DVDs which have made magnetic tapes become forgotten about over the last few decades. However, they still have many benefits and uses in today's society that makes them a viable option compared to digital storage solutions. 

Why use magnetic tapes?

There are many benefits that make magnetic tapes come out on top when compared to more modern storage media options.

Advantages include:

  • Longevity - Magnetic tape can last for decades, whereas modern drives typically last around 5 years.
  • Less Prone to data risks associated with modern drives - software failures, interrupted software updates or damaged drives can lead to loss of saved data. 
  • More affordable - purchasing new magnetic tapes is much cheaper than buying the equivalent in hard drive disks.
  • Very fast - the mere reading of a magnetic tape in some circumstances can be almost four times as fast as from a hard disk. 
  • Large data storage capacity similar to hard drives

Are magnetic tapes still used?

Yes, in fact many people are now opting for modern magnetic tape cartridges rather than digital storage systems as the latter rely heavily on built-in hard drives due to their higher read and write speeds. But what actually matters is the individual system and for what purpose it is used, because extracting data from a magnetic tape can also be a very fast process.

Once the data and the right tapes have been found and accessed by tape library robots, reading the tape is almost four times faster than reading a hard disk. However, writing a tape is usually not quite as fast as writing a hard drive.

How much data can a magnetic tape hold?

Similarly to hard drive disks, magnetic tapes can store enormous amounts of data averaging between 1-15 terabytes. This makes them a great long term storage option particularly for system backups, archive data and exchange purposes. 

The change from a backup storage medium to an archive storage medium

There are still a lot of businesses using tapes as their main backup system. This is related to the fact that not so long ago, businesses – even large ones – had no definite plan on how to keep “old” legacy data for internal or external legal or regulatory needs.

Many businesses which did not use an archiving solution, therefore stored their back-up data on tapes – simply because it was cheap – and then kept the tapes at a company facility or at an external tape storage provider until the retention period expired. However, this period can be quite long, in some cases much longer than 20 years.

Nowadays, with modern archiving solutions that are getting better and cheaper, it makes no sense to continue using backups as data archives. Backups are intended for a hardware or system failure or in case of data loss to get the environment running again fast and at short notice. Archives, on the other hand, are designed to store data without changing them. And this until the moment when the life cycle of the data has come to its end.

Since modern magnetic tape-based archives can even be integrated with document management systems (DMS), the lifecycle of a document can be defined more precisely: for instance, if a project has been completed, all associated documents, emails, etc. can be stored on tapes for archiving until their retention periods have expired, while the most important data of the project remain available to employees for a shorter period on hard disk-based DMS.

Modern IT Collides with Older IT

Although many companies have already made the change from the old approach of tape-based storage for both backups and archives to a real archiving solution, hundreds or even thousands of decades-old backup tapes continue slumbering in many data centres, corporate basements or at the facilities of specialised tape storage providers. 

Very often, however, the necessary information about what is stored on the tapes is not available due to their long storage period, the lack of catalogue files and/or the departure or retirement of the employee responsible. This can pose a major risk for the company, since in many areas of business, companies must be able to supply very old documents at extremely short notice in case of an audit or inquiry. Just think about such sensitive areas as nuclear energy, pharmaceutical products or very large construction projects. In all these fields there are dozens, if not hundreds, of long-term potential issues that might make a quick extraction of data necessary.

Finding out what data is on old magnetic tapes

For those companies that still have dozens or hundreds of legacy backup tapes stored and do not have the necessary hardware or the old backup software any more, urgent restoring of data on tapes is a costly and time-consuming undertaking.#

One solution to this problem is either to keep the outdated system running or to recover it, paying the corresponding licences.

Another alternative is to resort to a specialised data recovery company and ask them for the fastest possible recovery.

Support for files stored on magnetic tapes

Take a look at our magnetic tape back up and restoration questions answered in our useful guide or alternatively contact the Ontrack team today to find out more about our extensive magnetic tape support services: