The Role of Tape in Modern IT

Tuesday, February 9, 2016 by Jennifer Duits

In the last years there has been a strong debate over the role of the oldest storage medium still used: The digital data tape. Is tape dead or does it have a role in modern IT? Tape has been evolving throughout its entire life cycle.  It was first invented for recording sound in 1928, but it has expanded into one of the most ubiquitous and reliable mediums for storing data on a coated magnetic tape since the fifties.  With more than half a century on the market as a reliable medium for data storage it has survived the attacks of competing storage mediums like the hard disk (HDD) or optical mediums such as the blue ray disks or DVDs.

Why tape?

There are many benefits of using magnetic tape over other storage mediums.  One of its advantages is its longevity. Unlike other forms of storage, tapes last a lot longer and are less susceptible to the risks modern drives face. In fact, tapes can still be read reliably after thirty years, whereas the average disk lasts a mere five years.  This reliability is not the case for SSDs, HDDs or even cloud computing. Physical problems like defective or damaged disks or logical problems like software failures or even discontinued software patches can also lead to the permanent deletion of data. Data on tapes, on the other hand, can be read even after several decades if they are properly stored.

Yes, modern storage systems rely heavily on built-in hard disk drives because of their faster ability to read and write data. But this is not totally true, it depends on the system in use and on its purpose: For example extracting data from tape is also very fast. Getting data from tape is nearly four times quicker than reading from a hard disk, due to the complexity and sophistication of new storage devices. But still writing data on tape is generally not as fast as writing data on hard disk.

The shift from backup storage medium to an archive storage medium

There are still many companies that use tape as their main backup system. This has something to do with the fact that not so long ago, many companies – even big ones – did not have a plan on how to handle “old” data, that had to be kept because of internal or external legal regulations. Many companies who do not have an archiving solution in place simply backup their data on tape – because it is inexpensive – and store them somewhere in their company or at an external service provider until the retention period is over. This period can be quite long – in some cases more than twenty years.

Nowadays, with archiving software solutions getting better and cheaper every year, it no longer makes sense to use backup tapes as archives. Backups are meant to be used in the case of data loss or hardware failure to get the system active again in a short time. Archiving is meant to store data – which is not to be changed – for a long period of time until the lifecycle of the content is over.

Modern IT clashes with old IT

Even though many companies have made the transition from their old data storage approach based on backup tapes both for real backups as well as archiving purposes towards real archiving systems, in many data centers, company basements or in the chambers of specialized tape storage providers hundreds or thousands of old backup tapes are stored from decades ago.

Very often the required information stored on them is missing because of years gone by, missing catalog files and/or employee turnover. Whatever reason, there is just no easy way to easily identify the content of the old data tapes and this can be a risky business since in many businesses the urgent need to restore data can happen at any time.

How to solve the problem with unknown content on legacy tapes?

For those companies who still have dozens, or hundreds, of old legacy tapes in their possession and don’t have the proper hardware or backup software available anymore, getting requested data from tapes is a costly and timely task. The only solutions to this problem is either to acquire both the proper old hardware and software and to pay licenses for it, or employ a specialist data recovery service provider to get the data. Both ways can be costly and cause undue stress.

A much better solution is available with the new tape cataloging and data recovery service offering by Ontrack and its newly developed tool called Ontrack® DataAdvisor™. With this web-based tool, clients can check for the desired data on their tapes before they made a request for recovery. To use the solution, all tapes in question must either be cataloged (when the original tape catalog is missing) or the available tape catalogs will be imported into Ontrack DataAdvisor. In any case, there is no need to maintain both old tape hardware and backup software and to pay huge license fees anymore.