The magnetic tape is by no means dead
The advantages of magnetic tape are obvious: the unbeatable low cost of storage media in relation to the storage space, not to mention the enormously long durability of magnetic tapes. The tape is often referred to as the Methusalem of storage media since it was the second computer storage technology after the punched cards.
When an advantage becomes a challenge
Hardly anyone could have imagined that almost 60 years ago this kind of data storage would have such a long life. This advantage can, however, develop into a major challenge for companies: Namely, exactly when archived data are to be restored after a few decades.
No matter what country or industry, most companies have enormous retention periods for sensitive or business-critical data; for example the energy industry or aircraft manufacturers.
Whether nuclear or coal power plants, many safety-related information, such as; design drawings, data sheets and much more, must be kept for several decades in order to be consulted later on. The same also applies to aircraft production. Some of these developments last for 10 years or more, and it may well be that a development which was previously stopped for various reasons is now being reconsidered or resumed.
Accessing lost data
This is where the danger lies: If the data was stored on tapes decades ago, but in the following years no one checked the tapes nor the necessary equipment. In many cases, such archive backups along with the necessary hardware are in the eyes of controllers and the financial department just annoying expenses.
As a result, over the years, both the old magnetic tape drives and the appropriate backup solutions disappear. The responsible persons simply takes the risk that the tapes are never going to be needed again. Nevertheless, there will come a time at where the information from one of these tapes is required. What now?
When the tapes are all that’s left
Consider the following scenario: An aircraft manufacturer still has design data of a particularly aerodynamic plane on old archive tapes and would like to make use of this material. After a short research on the company, it becomes clear, that the tapes are there and nothing else. In this case, the data from the tapes must be extensively restored, which can take quite a long time, when there is a huge trunk of data to be recovered.
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 quite dangerous because the tape drives have not been adequately maintained. Here lays the possibility that the tapes can tear or be permanently damaged during reading. In addition, the old backup software runs on an old operating system with matching old drivers, so that the preparation of the read-out alone is a great challenge for the responsible IT administrator.
Migration of legacy data
In both cases, the specific company should migrate its important legacy data to both current backup software and onto a new tape. It is true that magnetic tapes can save data for up to 30 years without problems. However, access to the data stored on it becomes a challenge after this long time.
For this reason, companies that need to keep their data for several decades should, at best, migrate the data to the latest software version of their backup solution at the latest every 10 years, as well as check whether the tape format used is still relatively new and is still supported. (You can find out how a migration process is going to take place here.)
How often should your tapes be tested?
The magnetic tapes themselves should be checked annually whether they are still working and readable. Many tape formats of well-known manufacturers, e.g. IBM are now only found in the museum and 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 is only supported retroactively for two generations, one must always include this fact in its planning for the coming decades and such tapes or backup solution must then also be migrated or updated.
In general, when archiving data on tapes one should plan your data way ahead in time on 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.
Michael Nuncic is Marketing Communications Manager at the German Ontrack Data Recovery office in Böblingen for more than 5 years. Highly experienced in computer, network and software topics, he is a professional editor for blog and technical articles for almost 20 years now.