Tape vaulting: What you need to know about tape backup and archiving

Industry analyst Lauren Whitehouse discusses the latest developments in tape storage and best practices for tape vaulting.

Lauren Whitehouse is an industry analyst with 20 years of experience who covers backup and replication, data protection software and other topics. She recently spoke with SearchDataBackup.com assistant editor John Hilliard to discuss best practices in tape vaulting and the latest developments in tape storage. Download the podcast or read our transcript below.

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Tape vaulting: What you need to know about tape backup and archiving

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If you don’t backup to tape now, is it worth starting? Or are the recent developments in tape only worthwhile for those who have already invested in the technology?

With any type of purchase that you’re making, you’re always going to look at, first, what are your requirements, and then you’re going to want to match your requirements with what is available on the market.

The types of requirements for tape would be things like long-term retention [and] not really [related] with [the] backup window. So there are probably a lot of IT organizations that would opt to get into tape, especially since the innovation around tape technology is continuing and there’s a lot of very fast, high-capacity tape available.  

Clearly, I think people focus on the downside of tape is [that it is] not as flexible a medium as disk, but it’s a lot less costly. Again, you really have to look at your requirements are, and match those to what’s available as far as medium. So, I think people would get into tape.

Can you outline some of the recent developments in the tape world that are keeping it relevant?

The tape drive manufacturers are continuing to drive innovation with their technology to speed up the performance of tape drives and, in addition, increase the capacity that can be held on tape media. So, today, you would require a lot less tape cartridges than you would in the past for maybe the same backup set, which makes it easier when you’re talking about backup and recovery and not have to do a lot of tape handling. There’s a lot of automation that is still out there from an autoloader silo-type of approach that makes it a lot easier. And every backup application that came out of the traditional tape style of backup knows how to deal with those types of devices.

LTFS is one of the more exciting things that’s going on right now because it can offer a lot more flexibility to organizations that want to leverage tape as a medium, but want that capability of laying down data on the tape media differently than they have in the past. Things like deduplication might become more prevalent -- it’s available today, but it’s not really widely used. With LTFS, that might make it a lot easier. Also, being able to backup a virtual machine on to tape might be something that is easier with LTFS, so it’s kind of exciting.

Does the increasing focus on meeting e-discovery put tape at a disadvantage in terms of accessing specific pieces of data quickly to satisfy regulatory requirements? What role does the difference between backup and archiving have?

I think the focus for the last couple of years has been disk as a medium because it does offer you a lot more flexibility in manipulating data once it’s stored: faster access times, faster backup [and] faster recovery. When you start talking about archiving, there’s two different types of archiving.

There’s that long-term retention that you’re going to have, so if I backup my data onto whatever media -- disk or tape or cloud -- I might have to save that for some period of time to meet either my corporate requirements or some type of regulatory mandate.

You’re relying on a catalog that is available in your backup solution to know which tape you have to go through, but then it’s a little more cumbersome to actually retrieve that data. You don’t have visibility across all the tape sets you might have being stored. So an active archive is something that has been -- over the last several years -- probably been the way to go if you have e-discovery requirements or compliance requirements that it would be a lot easier to manage from a disk-based perspective than a tape-based perspective.

I think what’s happened in the last couple years is that there are those that know they have those archive requirements, an active archive requirement, and they’ve put those systems in place. And then there is everybody else [who] just treats backup on long-term retention media as “archive.”

How can you make sure you can get tapes back in a timely manner? Are SLAs negotiable?

When you’re saying, “SLA,” you’re referring to, “I contract with a tape vaulting vendor with some off-site storage in a long-term retention strategy.”

And that could be your local VAR, that could be a tape vaulting company like Iron Mountain that houses records for companies, or it’s someone else. And yes, SLAs are negotiable. Typically, you want to look at the policies that you have in your organization, what SLAs you’ve negotiated with your constituents, to understand what that timetable looks like.

So if I’ve promised a certain amount of uptime to the financial organization in my company, I have to make sure that I negotiate SLAs with my supply chain to make sure that I can meet the ones that I’ve promised my internal customers. As an example, storing stuff with Iron Mountain, you could make a request to have your tapes pulled from your storage inventory and if you meet that requirement to get your request in by 3 [p.m.], it’ll probably be shipped the next day.

And if you did an overnight shipment, you’ll have it the next day. So really, that gives you a 36- to 48-hour window of time to meet that requirement.    

Since you are putting your data in another company’s hands, how important is tape encryption when you are vaulting tapes, and can you outline some of the ways available to encrypt tape today?

There was a rude awakening a couple years ago when there were a lot of publicized events of tapes falling off the back of trucks, so to speak. And they weren’t encrypted and there was this breach of privacy for some companies that they had to be reported because of regulatory requirements. And so that just brought the issue to the fore, it’s probably just a good practice, [that] anytime data is leaving your company, that it be protected.

Protected means, number one, what’s the chain of custody for that particular data, and number two, is it encrypted, and who is holding the encryption keys? So those are two of the best practices you want to put out there.

But, inevitably, if a tape backup application is writing the data to that tape, and it’s potentially deduplicated or compressed, it’s in a state that’s not like someone can just pop it in a tape drive and read it anyway, so you’ve got this very slim layer of protection, but you want to add that next layer and add encryption.

How do you see the role of tape evolving in the future?

It’s still a medium that people are using. It’s not going away. It’s definitely being relied on less for the everyday operational recovery. But when you’re looking at retaining data for a long period of time, it’s a very cost-effective medium. And so, companies have still built a lot of process around using tape. The difference is that they’ve inserted disk somewhere in their backup process so that they get the job done faster and they can recover from disk for most of their recoveries and they’ll rely on tape for more of the disaster recovery or, “I need a file from two years ago,” type situation. So it still plays a role. I think the advancements we’re seeing in performance improvements, higher capacity, things like LTFS, which is allowing us to have a little bit more flexibility with tape media, could open the door to tape being used in different ways in organizations. So I think there’s a lot of interesting things that could happen shortly.  

This was first published in February 2012

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