Why Tape Migration is Still Important

Thursday, August 24, 2017 by Michael Nuncic

The magnetic tape is by no means dead. The advantages for tape media are obvious: low cost for the capacity and a long storage lifespan. Tape has been around for quite some time. In fact, it was the second storage media with the punch card being the first. No one could have imagined nearly 60 years ago that this kind of data storage would have such a long life. However, tape can sometimes pose challenges for companies looking to restore long-archived data.

Tape still matters in organizations - here's why

Some industries have an enormously long retention period for sensitive or business-critical data; for example, the energy industry or aircraft manufacturers. Safety information for nuclear or coal power plants, such as design drawings or datasheets, must remain for several decades. For aircraft manufacturers, product development can last over 10 years, and a project which  can begin again. Saving development for future reference is a must.

Retrieving data that has been stored on tape for ten years or more can be tricky. In many cases, archive backups and the required hardware are seen as an added expense in the eyes of controllers and the finance department. As a result, over the years, both the old magnetic tape drives and the appropriate backup solutions disappear. Those responsible will make an assumption that the tapes will never be needed again. Nevertheless, there comes a day when the information on the tapes is required. What now?

Old designs on tape

Consider the following scenario: an aircraft manufacturer still has design data from a specialized plane on old archived tapes and would like to use one of the design features on a new plane. After conducting some internal research, it becomes clear that the data is no longer there. In this case, the data from the tapes must be restored by a data recovery expert, such as Ontrack.

Don't get yourself in a bind

In another scenario, a company still has the old equipment and the legacy backup software solution, but reading the old data takes quite a long time and is also dangerous because the tape drives have not been adequately maintained. This poses a potential threat for the tapes, as they can tear or be permanently damaged during reading. In addition, the old backup software runs on an old operating system with matching old drivers.  Because of this, the preparation of the read-out alone is a big enough challenge for the responsible IT administrator. In this case, the company should migrate its important legacy data to both current backup software and onto new tape.

It is true that magnetic tapes can save data for up to 30 years without problems. However, accessing the data becomes a challenge.

Why you should migrate tape data

For this reason, companies that need to keep their data for several decades should migrate the data to the latest software version of their backup solution at least every 10 years, as well as check whether the tape format used is still relatively new and supported. The magnetic tapes should be checked annually to determine if they are still working and readable. Many tape formats of well-known manufacturers, e.g. IBM, are no longer supported by backup solutions. The LTO format has prevailed in almost all areas and is now supported by almost all tape backup and hardware vendors. Since tape drives and backup solutions of the current LTO standard are only supported retroactively for two generations, one must always consider this in planning for coming decades and these tapes or backup solutions must also be migrated or updated.

In general, when archiving data on tapes, you should make a plan ahead of time for when you need to upgrade to the current software solution or the latest tape format, so you can easily access your legacy backup data later on. Ontrack offers services for the migration of tape content into a new tape format, as well as the migration of legacy backup data into a new software format. Our experts have not only the right equipment for reading old tapes, but also the necessary know-how and custom software tools for converting the data into the new backup format. More information on tape migration can be found on the Ontrack website or here on our blog.