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Tape still critical in any data archiving strategy

Jason Buffington of Enterprise Strategy Group explains why the rumors of tape's demise, which is unlikely to happen soon, are greatly exaggerated.

The rumors of tape's demise are greatly exaggerated and have been ever since disk companies started predicting the end of tape (which hasn't happened yet, and is unlikely to anytime soon).

A recent Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) research report found that tape is still in use in 56% of organizations. In general, the larger the overall IT environment, the more likely the organization is to embrace tape as part of its data management and data archiving strategy. Here's why:

  1. As the sheer scale of data grows, the impetus to find ways to store data (primary production data, as well as secondary copies) efficiently becomes increasingly important. When all Opex and Capex are netted out, well-managed tape products are still economically compelling.
  2. Don't ignore tape as part of your modern data retention scheme.
  3. As the organization grows, it will inevitably find itself under greater pressure (operationally and due to external regulations) to store data for longer periods of time. And for truly long-term retention, tape is still a preferable medium for data retention and should continue to be so moving forward.

So, while modern data management is a mandate, that does not imply a particular storage medium or software offering, as those have evolved dramatically for the modern data center.

LTO is NOT your daddy's tape

Unfortunately, tape has somehow become a four-letter word that is misperceived to be synonymous with archaic instead of archive. While tape's reputation from 20 years ago was earned, nothing else in IT is the same as decades ago. However, there is a lack of awareness of modern tape's capabilities among users, and today's disk manufacturers take advantage of a number of misconceptions about tape. In the past:

  • Tape was deemed slow, but today's LTO-6 drives can transfer data at 160 MBps.
  • Tape was deemed small, but today's LTO-6 cartridges can hold 2.5 TB uncompressed and up to 6.25 TB compressed (2.5:1 ratio) per cartridge.
  • Tape suffered upgrade challenges over time. Today's LTO drives can read LTO-6, LTO-5 and so on for backward compatibility. That is a key value point of the LTO standard: enabling performance and feature innovation within a single form factor that boasts backward compatibility and support for LTO drives from multiple hardware manufacturers.

But innovations in tape, and in LTO in particular, do not stop with continually increasing speeds, capacity and compatibilities. Today's tape also offers additional capabilities, including WORM support, encryption and most notably, the Linear Tape File System (LTFS). Easily one of the most dramatic evolutions or revolutions in tape for data archiving or other data management tasks is LTFS, which enables tape cartridges to be directly mounted and accessed as easily as a USB flash drive; a multi-terabyte mountable cartridge that is durable, portable and designed for a long shelf life. Upon mounting, a file system of folders and files gives a fresh use case for tape.

That innovation continues with LTFS Library Edition, whereby each cartridge's file system is logically presented with an overarching file system that is presented by the library. Upon navigating through the virtual file system, the library's robotics mounts the proper cartridge. This process is completely transparent to users.

Two decades ago, disk was made to look like tape through virtual tape libraries, because backup software and usage patterns only knew how to utilize tape. Today, our usage scenarios and most backup/archive/data management software knows how to use disk; so today's tape uses LTFS to look like disk. LTO's performance enhancements, data management/access features and increased durability make it an ideal medium for archiving data.

The convergence of archive and backup strategies

Historically, the terms backup and archive have been misused and often incorrectly interchanged. It is incorrect to consider "backups go to disk, while tapes are archives."

Simply put, a backup is a point-in-time copy of a container or dataset for the purposes of restoring to a previous version, while an archive is meant to preserve data for regulatory or operational retention requirements. The confusion comes when IT takes its point-in-time backups and tries to retain them for long periods (as archives) without the catalog, metadata or other software capabilities that enable the real preservation of data.

One pixel Jon Toigo on resolving data archiving problems

A few years ago, vendors and IT organizations began to realize that data backups and archives were not synonymous, but instead were separate, yet complementary, means of managing data retention. With this strategy came the separation of software tools, administrators and data management policies. The result was two completely separate silos of secondary data.

Today, we are seeing a genuine convergence of archive and backup; not as mislabeled offerings but in data management mechanisms that accurately achieve both business purposes by combining features. In a recent ESG survey, a combined 83% of organizations use the archiving features within their backup products as part of (or their only) strategy toward archiving data.

Products that offer a convergence of archive and backup include

  • CommVault Simpana OnePass
  • Symantec NetBackup
  • Symantec Backup Exec
  • Symantec Enterprise Vault
  • EMC Avamar
  • EMC Networker
    * EMC Avamar and NetWorker include its SourceOne archival product

Examples of the genuine convergence include CommVault Simpana's OnePass functionality, with a single client-agent that first ensures the backup and then (courtesy of a single checkbox) facilitates archival grooming. Symantec has two backup products (NetBackup and Backup Exec), as well as Enterprise Vault for archiving; with some capabilities being accessed through the backup products for those that don't need the full feature set. Meanwhile, EMC offers a complete suite of data protection technologies (Avamar, NetWorker and so on) that include its SourceOne archival product.

In other words, even the largest of traditional backup vendors understands the need for a comprehensive approach to delivering backups plus archives, and are offering that functionality through a variety of software models and various levels of integration. Even data protection hardware products from companies like EMC/Data Domain and NetApp have extended retention mechanisms to better facilitate archival business cases in an integrated way.

What should you do now?

If you archive (groom/preserve) the subset of data that is necessary for long-term data retention, you will almost assuredly back up less data. Your overall Capex and Opex will go down, production storage will gain efficiencies, and your backup product will perform more optimally.

Don't ignore tape as part of your modern data retention scheme. Modern tape has dramatically increased in speed, capacity, durability and features.

You may not need a dedicated archival product that requires yet another data infrastructure. Modern backup applications include the archival features necessary for environments that are not highly regulated or requiring specialized vertical retention features.

A data archiving strategy does not have to be complicated or expensive, and (if done correctly) should save money for organizations of all sizes, as long as you assess your archival needs and explore archival methods with an open mind.

About the author:
Jason Buffington is a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. He focuses primarily on data protection, as well as Windows Server infrastructure, management and virtualization. He blogs at CentralizedBackup.com and tweets as @Jbuff.

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This was last published in February 2015

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From my perspective, not only is tape an ideal target for archive data due to modern improvements, but also because it favors long-term data archiving.
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Tape is also cheaper, no? How does it compare in terms of space?
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Justifying the use of tape, in the SME arena, is becoming increasingly more difficult. Not because of any problems with the improvements in the tape technology or cost per TB of storage, but almost entirely due to the lack of effective support for integrating tape archiving into a virtualised SME environment. Proper support, amongst the virtualisation platform vendors (MS, VMware, Citrix, etc.) as well as the tape OEMs (HP, DELL, IBM, etc.) all make the performance improvements, seen in tape technology, choked, by this lack of proper support. Essentially, the lack of proper support for directly attached tape devices (through technologies, such as VMware's DirectPath) and no effective network attached tape storage options, in the market, mean that a large number of small businesses are precluded from taking advantage of increased data throughput of the newer LTO technologies.
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Can't say I'm a big fan of tape. Despite enhancements, there's still deterioration of data over time. And linear access means slower data retrieval. OTOH, there seems to be no single perfect safety for data, leaving us with a hodge-podge of redundant solutions.
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