Tape backup is the practice of periodically copying data from a primary storage device to a tape cartridge so the data can be recovered if there is a hard disk crash or failure. Tape backups can be done manually or be programmed to happen automatically with appropriate software.
Tape backup systems exist for needs ranging from backing up the hard disk on a personal computer to backing up large amounts of data storage for archiving and disaster recovery (DR) purposes in a large enterprise. Tape backups can also restore data to storage devices when needed.
Tape backup advantages and use cases
Tape can be one of the best options for fixing an unstructured data backup problem because of its inexpensive operational and ownership cost, capacity and speed. Magnetic tape is especially attractive in an era of massive data growth. Customers can copy and store archival and backup data on tape for use with cloud seeding.
The data transfer rate for tape can be significantly faster than disk and on par with flash drive storage, with native write rates of at least 300 megabytes per second (MBps). For anyone concerned with backups increasing the latency of production storage, flash-to-tape, disk-to-disk-to-tape or other data buffering strategies can mask the tape write operation.
Because disk is easier to restore data from, more secure and benefits from technologies such as data deduplication, it has replaced tape as the preferred medium for backup. Tape is still a relevant medium for archiving, however, and remains in use in large enterprises that may have petabytes of data backed up on tape libraries.
Magnetic tape is well-suited for archiving because of its high capacity, low cost and durability. Tape is a linear recording system that is not good for random access. But in an archive, latency is less of an issue.
A brief history of tape
Early on, magnetic tape was used as a primary data storage device. When other media provided better random access, the role of tape veered more toward backup and archive. There are still industries where tape is preferred as the data capture storage, such as motion picture recording (because of its durability) and the scientific community (for its capacity and write speeds).
This video with Storage Switzerland's George Crump explains why tape continues to be used in organizations as a separate backup platform.
Tape libraries housed drives and tape cartridges with entire backup data sets. For DR, companies would then transport backup tapes to off-site locations, often contracting with a service such as Iron Mountain to carry tapes to secure vaults on a daily or weekly basis. Tape libraries actually originated in the mainframe world, where large computer systems ran compute jobs in batches. Computer operators would store a program and the data it used on tape so a job could be moved off the computer for temporary storage and reloaded when it needed to be run again.
Recent innovations in the tape world, such as LTO and IBM’s Linear Tape File System (LTFS), have removed the need for backup software. Launched in 2000, LTO-1 held 100 gigabytes (GB) of data per cartridge. Since then, the LTO Consortium has released a new generation of LTO every two or three years, each approximately doubling storage capacity. And files and objects copied directly to a tape repository running LTFS technology retain their native structure and metadata.
Magnetic tape vs. disk-based backup
For larger organizations that use disk-to-disk backups, tape can augment the primary backup target by providing longer and more durable data storage than what a disk array can provide by itself.
Customers may improve their backup process by combining the two, since disk and tape have their own strengths and weaknesses:
- Disks are not usually portable, while tapes are easily movable.
- Tapes and disks are generally reliable, but a single disk error can render an entire series of backups useless because many disk-based backup applications perform block-level incremental backups.
- Many disk-based products perform backups continuously throughout the day, while tape is backed up less frequently.
Tape backup security best practices
It's important to protect your tape backup system. There are several ways to make data on tape more secure:
- Encrypt the data.
- Ship tapes off site as soon as they have been written, to limit opportunities for them to be stolen.
- Use a reputable service for off-site tape storage.
- Control physical access to the tape drives.
Technical challenges with tape backup
There are hurdles to clear when using tape for backup:
How a Gmail outage illuminated how tape backups are still important
Explore more about security for tape backups