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How does using tape for backup compare to the cloud?

While tape is notably offline and thus protected from cyberattacks, the cloud could comprehensively surpass it for backup if service providers figure out security issues.

Tape was declared "dead" almost 40 years ago. However, as a backup tool, tape still sells, even with disk-based products and, now, the cloud.

These newer approaches to backup are much faster, more convenient and speed up the recovery process, which is where the value proposition of backup is most meaningful. On the other hand, tape drives benefit from their ability to seemingly last forever if they are maintained properly. I've cheerfully used 30-year-old drives.

I believe the real issues are twofold. First, using tape for backup is a safety blanket in most IT shops. It's been around so long that it is a back-office operation with low visibility. Moving to the cloud would require new processes and copying all those old tapes to the cloud, while adding a startup cost to the budget. Many administrators and CFOs are willing to hide behind the safety blanket and stick with tape.

Using tape for backup is a safety blanket in most IT shops.

This is the main reason for the reluctance of shops to move backup to the cloud. But there is another reason, one that stands on its own, but also feeds into the safety blanket issue. Tape for backup is inherently offline. Data can't be corrupted unless the tape is mounted, so it passes the ultimate test of being hack-proof.

Cloud backup doesn't yet meet that standard for security because it is online to some systems in your data center and multiple people have access. This is why I used the "safety blanket" term for the first issue. If a tape is in the salt mine, your data is safe because people in your company must intervene offline to retrieve it.

Even so, perpetual flat backups -- snapshots -- into the cloud are very convenient to use. They are safe from most hacks, even though they are online, because they contain all versions of data objects. However, they are vulnerable to a command to delete the archive, causing complete data loss. When the cloud service providers get their act together and offer a service where a perpetual backup can be kept safely, while requiring a manual step with the provider to delete the archive, the cloud will finally have surpassed tape for backup.

Until that happens, tape is safe, and the use of tape for backup will continue on for at least a decade after. A combination of conservativeness and having more important priorities will ensure that. Such legacy tape will, as usual, be most prevalent in government operations.

This was last published in December 2017

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