Best practices for long-term tape archives

What you will learn from this tip: Best practices for magnetic tape for data retention and how to store tapes for long duration.

The advantages of using tape to store long-term archival and compliance data

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include low cost per gigabyte and relative ease of transportability, assuming the tapes do not get lost in transit. Several options exist to secure stored data, including drive or tape library level encryption.

Tape backup information

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Best practices: Optimizing your backups

For the near term, tape is still being used in some environments to support backup, archiving and retention of data for compliance. Some environments have shifted from tape to disk while others have embraced a mixed tape and disk approach to support long-term data retention. The decision to use tape instead of other media, including optical, disk or remote network-based services comes down to cost, preferences and service requirements. When looking at the cost of tape vs. other media, make an apples-to-apples comparison by considering the cost of handling of the media, applicable hardware and software costs and ongoing maintenance. With high energy prices, also include power and cooling costs into your analysis. Requirements include what service-level objectives you need to support for data availability and survivability.

Periodically audit your backups and archives by randomly selecting a tape and verifying that you can read the tape on a tape drive in a different location than where it was written. Also, you should verify that you can restore selected data to an alternative location. This audit confirms that what you think has been backed up is in fact on the tape. If your data is important enough to backup, then it should be important enough to make multiple copies that can be stored in different locations either online, near line or offline.

Protect your tapes and the data they store by implementing appropriate levels of physical and logical security. Store your tapes in a comfortable place, free of dust and other containments. As an added safeguard, store your tapes away from any sources of magnetic interference including monitors, motors and microwave ovens. Also, keep your tape drive heads clean, as recommended by the drive manufacturer -- using the recommended cleaning tools.

Manufactures of tape drives and media including HP, IBM, Imation, Quantum, Sony and Sun/STK among others have specific recommendations for the care and handling of media for you to review. In general, if you are not comfortable with the habitat in which the tapes are stored, chances are the tapes are not comfortable either. If you need to move tapes from a climate controlled environment, allow time for the tape to acclimate and adjust to the new surroundings before using the tape.

Determine what the lifecycle of the media that you are using is and at what point in time you will retire a cartridge or migrate to a different storage medium. Unless you plan on being in the media conversion business or maintaining an active tape technology museum, avoid islands of technology to preserve backwards compatibility, and instead look into migrating data to alternate mediums for preservation where practical. Once you have migrated or retired old tape media, make sure to dispose of it properly (by yourself or with a qualified disposal firm). Simply throwing your old tapes in the dumpster is no longer an option.

Tape remains an option for various environments depending upon your preferences, budget and requirements. Look to the future as to what technology you will eventually replace tape with. Also, consider when and how you will go about migrating data from one medium to another. In the meantime, take care of your tapes so that your data will be safe and secure when you need to access it.

Do you know…

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The important differences between archives and backups?

This was first published in August 2006

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