Tape makes a comeback (but was it ever gone?)

Somebody out there is spreading rumors about the death of tape, but there’s plenty of life left in this venerable storage technology.

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Somebody out there is spreading rumors about the death of tape, but there’s plenty of life left in this venerable storage technology.

How many articles have you read in the past year that begin along the lines of “Despite reports to the contrary, tape isn’t dead”? A lot, right? Not only is it a little tedious to have to deal with the same “tape is dead/tape isn’t dead” stuff all the time, you have to wonder who actually pronounced tape dead in the first place.

Don’t look at me -- I have nothing against tape. And although journalists get blamed all the time for dumping the tried and true in favor of the latest, coolest technologies, I think it might be the dedupe, virtual tape library (VTL) and disk backup target guys who are trying to drive a stake through tape’s heart. Wasn’t it Data Domain that used to hand out those “Tape Sucks, Move On” bumper stickers at trade shows? And if you read the name of a certain VTL maker from right to left it says “no tapes.”

In any event, if tape is truly dying, it’s dragging out the process even longer than Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco did when he took his sweet time shuffling off this mortal coil back in 1975.

But tape’s not dying. In fact, at times it seems to be developing and taking on new tasks even faster than its nemesis (hard disk drive technology) has managed. Just consider tape capacities. Oracle’s latest incarnation of its T10000 tape drive (the “C” model) has a capacity of 5 TB. That’s 5 TB of native, uncompressed capacity, so the T10000C leapfrogs LTO-5’s 1.5 TB (3 TB compressed) capacity. A 5 TB tape is pretty amazing when you consider that in November 2005, T10000’s capacity was 500 GB, a 10x improvement in just a little over five years. And IBM just announced that it has pumped its TS1140 tape drive up to 4 TB native. Although 3 TB hard disk drives are now available and hard disk drive technology has progressed at nearly the same 10x clip over the same period of time, tape is still the capacity king.

Our purchasing research surveys also show how tape has evolved over the years. The biggest change is that companies are spending less money on tape gear. If we go back just four years, 33% of companies said they were increasing the amount of money they planned to spend on tape systems, while 24% were cutting back. Fast forward to today and those numbers are reversed, with 34% now planning to reduce their spending. But that’s not surprising given the role of disk in most companies’ backup operations. Our surveys also show that IT shops buying new libraries are, on average, buying smaller ones: Back in 2006 the average tape library purchased had 159 slots; today it’s approximately 92. That’s a 42% drop, but during the same time, drive capacities went up several hundred percent.

So, disk has definitely made a dent and tape technology itself is making smaller look bigger. But according to our most recent survey, 77% of firms still spin off all or some backup data to tape. They just need a little less tape gear to do it these days.

Backup probably isn’t the biggest part of the “future of tape” story. Two other areas have heated up over the last few years, where tape is either in the thick of things already or positioned to be there. The first is media and entertainment, specifically for video production. Digitized movies need tons of storage space to handle all the raw footage that needs to be whittled down, edited and made into a commercial product. And hundreds of television stations (big and small) across the country need huge amounts of capacity to store years’ worth of footage. In many cases, these media companies are using tape as a “sub-primary” tier where these big files can reside until they’re needed and then streamed back to disk. Tape is perfect for this because of its ample capacity, portability and low cost of operation. (Hmm, weren’t those the same reasons tape got big in backup in the first place?) Other organizations in fields that require working with massive files, like genomics, geo exploration and healthcare, are also looking at tape in a new light these days.

Maybe the best application for tape is one of its old standbys -- archiving -- which is getting renewed interest these days as IT shops have to simultaneously deal with mountains of new data while cleaning up existing data storage systems to make better use of them. Tape makes a lot of sense as part of an archive scheme; large amounts of tape-based data can be easy to access and available when needed. It won’t be delivered with the kind of immediacy that primary storage offers, but that’s OK because it’s archival data.

Those scenarios aren’t all that new, but they’ve become more feasible because of tape’s growing capacities and throughput. But what might turn out to be the biggest new development in tape technology in decades has largely lingered under the radar for the year or so it’s been available. Developed by IBM as part of it LTO consortium efforts, the Linear Tape File System (LTFS) can turn tape into something it decidedly isn’t -- disk. Well, not really; it just sort of looks like disk.

LTFS carves out a bit of an LTO-5 tape cartridge’s capacity and reserves it for a file system or an index of the contents of the tape. That makes it look a lot like a disk system with its file system. In fact, an application that’s looking for NAS storage could just as easily hook up with the LTFS-enabled tape instead. All that’s required, in addition to an LTO-5 drive and media, of course, is a bit of client software you can get for free from IBM. With that software, you can mount an LTFS-enabled LTO-5 cartridge, browse its index, and retrieve the specific file or files you need by dragging and dropping to and from the tape.

Taken a step further, if backup app vendors decide to adopt the LTFS interface, tapes could be interchangeable among different backup applications. Or, put another way, you’d be able to replace your current backup app with another one tomorrow and still have easy access to all the data you parked on tape with the prior backup application. That kind of interchangeability is bound to make backup vendors nervous, so you’re not likely to see them jumping on LTFS any time soon, but archive vendors are actively adapting their apps to take advantage of LTFS.

So, if those rumors are true and tape is really dead, it’s doing a damn good job of haunting disk and backup vendors.

Rich Castagna is editorial director of the Storage Media Group.

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