As data storage and retention demands grow, tape continues to hang in there as the industry finds new applications for this proven technology. But has tape robotics technology kept up? And how does that technology affect tape's usefulness in the 21st century? SearchDataBackup site editor Andrew Burton talks with Benjamin Woo, managing director of Neuralytix Inc., to learn more.
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Can you outline some of the most recent developments in tape library robotics that you think are interesting?
I think the most interesting thing is the fact that we continue to have developments there. It's certainly not the fastest-moving part of the industry, but the fact that there continues to be development, continues to have advances and engineering … is a reflection of the fact that [tape] robotics and tape in general [are] very important [parts] of the IT and data backup industry.
Since tape is being used as an archiving medium today, how does improved tape robotics add to tape's viability for archiving?
From an archiving perspective, what we're looking at, what really comes into play is … that when we retrieve data from an archive, we would be looking for random pieces of data. Usually, you can think about situations such as data restoration, or legal discovery [as] typical uses of archives. You're looking for chunks of data, or very large amounts of data, and the … nature of tape technologies overall makes tape a viable and very appropriate medium for both storing and restoring the data that is involved.
Where robotics comes into play is as we move toward more and more real time, and certainly more dynamic set of requests, queries and data storage of these pieces of data, the robotics aid in the ability to find the right tape quicker, and the ability to load the tapes and also relocate them back in a way that is most appropriate, while at the same time being able to provide a physical storage medium that is accessible and addressable. And the last two things -- the accessibility and the addressability -- [are] the critical elements of tape robotics.
What are the current limits of tape robotics technology?
One of the biggest elements we've seen in the last five or ten years is this concept of modularity. If you go back about 20 years ago, the PowderHorns of StorageTek were the utopian abilities to store massive amounts of data. You walk into this room literally with this flying robotic arm with great sensors and great ability to fly around and get the right tape at the right time. The challenge of that, of course, is that it is completely not scalable. You buy in one size, it's like a Model T -- 'Would you like it in big, big or big?'
With modern tape libraries, you're able to scale it from much smaller modules to very large, interconnected modules. However, it's really an interchange between modules that becomes more challenging. What is the hand-off mechanism, if there is one? What is the mechanism for a robot to go between all these modules? In some cases, modules can take up tens of linear feet … and it's important that the robot be able to go across all of them [and] it may be necessary that other robots across these modules be able to load different tapes at the same time. Coordination of these robots becomes a critical element.
So there are two ways of doing it: Libraries can be interconnected from a horizontal perspective or a linear perspective. Typically, the larger libraries, where they are connected side by side, and then the smaller tape libraries, the automated tape libraries are typically vertically interchanged. So you essentially stack rack modules, one on top of the other, and the robot arm goes between them. Those are the two things going on.
And the scalability becomes very, very important, because what we're seeing is the fact that generally most organizations want to buy less tape ... Not [eliminate] tape, but less tape. Two reasons for that: One is that we can store more on tape than we ever could before. Number two, we're using a lot more disk, virtual tape libraries, which are offsetting some of the investments in streaming tape technologies. So we want to start off, or refresh, our tape investments with smaller units. But what we're also finding over the years is we return to this scaling and we return to this desire to grow out tape libraries because we see benefits in the data that's being stored.
And ultimately, this conversation goes into big data, and other forms of analytics. So it's critical for organizations to start small again, and then build out over time.