A New Beginning for Tape?

Arthur Cole spoke with Bruce Master, senior program manager for IBM’s Tape Storage Systems/The LTO Program, about new generations of LTO tape in the enterprise.

Predictions surrounding the end of tape in enterprise environments are almost as old as, well, the disk technology. Lately, however, it seems that more and more experts are saying tape’s demise is real this time, with the advanced features available to disk drives starting to foster real penetration into the back-up and archival platforms that have always been tape’s strength. However, tape backers like IBM’s Bruce Master say the writing isn’t on the wall just yet, and new generations of LTO tape are poised to hit back pretty hard, particularly when it comes to top data concerns like security.


“Tape is low-cost, off-line, portable, fast streaming, automated, low energy consuming, infinitely scalable – just add more cartridges – and … is ideal for disaster recovery and long-term data retention-archiving.”

Bruce Master
Senior Program Manager

Cole: More and more we are hearing about the end of tape and the all-disk storage infrastructure. The LTO Consortium naturally disagrees. What is your argument?

Master: Tape is low-cost, off-line, portable, fast streaming, automated, low energy consuming, infinitely scalable – just add more cartridges – and tape offers WORM and encryption. Tape is ideal for disaster recovery and long-term data retention-archiving.

Data has been growing exponentially amid a constantly-changing business environment. Data, or any information, is central to an organization’s overall success, but it is at risk and must be protected. The risk stems from a myriad of potential data destructors – things like system error, operator error, theft, hackers, viruses, sabotage and natural disaster. IT storage managers are expected to manage and protect data with constrained resources, and increasing expectations that come with tighter budgets, compliance regulations and security requirements, not to mention more attention to total cost of ownership and rising energy costs.

Data protection lessons are often learned the hard way. One provider of services to thousands of bloggers had their customers’ data wiped out. The backup plan involved one disk drive replicating its data to another drive. Due to a system error the data was erased on one drive leading the other drive to erase the backup data as well. Unfortunately, there was no offline data to restore from.

In another scenario – again, with a disk-to-disk backup system – hackers were able to take out a flight simulation site’s server as well as its backup server, rendering data culled from 13 years of hard work completely useless. The attack shocked the flight simulation community as the site had become a source of community-developed terrains, skins and mods – a contribution that had been considered immeasurable. Again, there was no offline data to provide recovery.

A data protection plan must incorporate an original copy of critical data that is stored offline and offsite to protect it from risks that can threaten online data. Offline data is inaccessible from system errors, hackers and viruses. The data should also be offsite. That way in the event of a site-wide disaster the offsite copy of data can be used to recover. The best form of offline and offsite data protection is tape storage today and for the foreseeable future.

Cole: LTO-5 puts tape over 1 TB in capacity, but disk technology is already approaching 3 TB and more. Why do you think the price advantage of tape will hold up when cloud technology is making data availability that much more important?

Master: Tape storage is low-cost. LTO-5 cartridge media is about 3 cents per GB compressed. Studies have shown tape solutions to be up to 20 times less costly than disk storage solutions and to use nearly 300 times less energy. So tape is the greener form of storage. Tape capacity is also highly scalable. You don’t need to add more drives, simply add more cartridges to economically and efficiently grow capacity.

A blended tiered strategy of disk and tape can optimally address the varied objectives of the storage manager – disk for high access backup and recalls and tape for low access backups, compliance, archive, cost control, energy efficiency and data protection. According to a University of California-Santa Cruz study, more than 90 percent of data stored to disk was never accessed again, and another 6.5 percent was only accessed once. This data should be stored on tape. It is perfect for this data as a less expensive and less energy-consuming storage medium, while disk can address the data that needs to be accessed quickly. Once that data becomes infrequently accessed it, too, should be moved to tape.

Cole: What about advanced functions like multi-platform operation and dynamic load balancing? Aren’t they more suitable to an all-disk environment?

Master: The LTO program has adopted as a standard the Linear Tape File System specification. This file system can allow tape to be used in a manner like disk or other removable storage media, including directory tree access and drag-and-drop capability. This is important for cross-platform sharing, ease of management and new use cases for a variety of industries including media and entertainment, digital video surveillance, medical imaging, legal documents, architectural drawings, government documents, cloud applications and many more.

The LTO roadmap extends to generation 8 with up to 12.8TB per cartridge. In 2010, IBM demonstrated a bit density achievement of 29.5B bits per square inch, which could yield a 35 TB tape. And Maxell has demonstrated the capability for a 50 TB tape. Users can rest easy as tape’s future is strong.

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