Why we still use magnetic tapes in business today
“Magnetic tapes are dead”; “Tapes still have a role in modern IT”. These are two opinions frequently heard among system administrators, but which of them is right? In recent years, there has been a lot of debate about the role of the oldest storage medium still in use. Tapes were first invented in 1928 for sound recording purposes, but since the fifties they have evolved into one of the most widespread and reliable media for storing data on a specially coated medium. Used reliably now for longer than half a century to store data, tapes have survived many attacks from competitors such as hard disk drives (HDD or SSD), or optical media such as Blu-Ray discs or DVDs.
Why magnetic tapes?
There are many benefits in the use of magnetic tapes compared to other storage media. One of their advantages is durability. Unlike other data storing media, as a rule tapes have a much longer useful life and are less prone to the risks of modern drives. In fact, magnetic tapes can be read securely, even after 30 years, while the average hard drive scarcely lasts five years. Such reliability is offered neither by SSDs, enterprise HDDs or cloud computing. Physical problems such as broken or damaged hard disks, or logical issues such as software failures or interrupted software updates can even lead to loss of saved data. Data on magnetic tapes, on the other hand, can be read even after decades, supposing they have been stored according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Is magnetic tape still used?
Yes, it is actually true: modern storage systems 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.
Thus, if speed is not the decisive advantage for using magnetic tapes in addition to durability, what is?
It is their lower cost, compared to hard drives. While the cost of procurement of these different systems is high for both, the gap between them will increase at latest when expanding them as more storage capacity is needed: acquiring several new tapes is significantly cheaper than buying equivalent storage space in the form of hard drives.
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 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 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.
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