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Optimizing tape backup systems

Tape vendors have recently improved their tape devices' density, enhancing management tools, integrating tape with their disk storage systems, and adding encryption.

Many businesses have invested a lot of time, money, and effort in their tape backup systems. As their volume of data increases, these organizations are searching for ways to squeeze more life out of their tape libraries. In response, vendors have been improving their tape devices' density, supporting higher volume tape systems, enhancing their management tools, integrating these devices with their disk systems, and adding encryption.

We have much better visibility into the viability of our tape systems now than in the past.


Ryan M. O'Connor,
IT corporate manager and IT architectRaytheon

Many companies rely on tape instead of disk to back up their information. For instance, Raytheon, which has 72,000 employees, now has about 2 PB of information in three data centers supporting its users, and uses tape for approximately 80 TB of their 2 PB of storage.

Recent improvements in tape systems

As companies deploy more tape drives and tape libraries, they want to ease their manual maintenance chores. In response, vendors have continued to try and limit the level of human interaction needed with these systems.

In a number of cases, vendors have tried to eliminate human interaction altogether. "Recently, vendors have added more automation to their tape libraries," noted Lauren Whitehouse, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. Robotics have been used to automate the process of loading and unloading this media, and suppliers have been searching for ways to make their automated systems more efficient. Qualstar improved its Compass Architecture, so any tape can be accessed in a 21-inch average horizontal robotic motion. Reducing the automated tape system movements improves reliability and lowers power consumption.

Storage vendors have also been improving their management tools so users can troubleshoot tape devices more easily. The latest release of Spectra Logic's BlueScale management tool, v. 10.5, features an internal Web camera so backup/storage administrators can examine library operations in real time.

Last November, Spectra Logic expanded the reach of its Hardware Health Monitor, which tracks component thresholds and proactively notifies administrators of possible threats before failures, from its RAID array reporting to its Media Lifecycle Management tape health tool.

"We have much better visibility into the viability of our tape systems now than in the past," said Ryan M. O'Connor, IT corporate manager and IT architect at Raytheon, which recently upgraded to Spectra Logic's T950 Tape Library, which supports the new feature.

The bevy of new government regulations has forced companies to place more importance on properly maintaining backup data. Consequently, suppliers are integrating high availability features, like failover and multipathing, into their tape systems.

With the volume of data growing, corporations need higher performing tape systems. One recent enhancement has been the migration from LT0-3 tape drives, which support about 400 GB of information per tape, to LT0-4 devices, which double that amount to 800 GB bytes of data. Raytheon recently migrated from the older technique to the newer tape format to ease its backups, which range in size from 50 TB to 80 TB each week.

Another change has been encryption functions are being built into drives. "We had encryption in our database management system, but the auditors wanted it when we wrote information to a tape as well," stated Raytheon's O'Connor.

Vendors are also looking at new applications of tape backup. "Electronic vaulting of tape media is likely to become a feasible option in the future," noted Enterprise Strategy Group's Whitehouse. Symantec Backup Exec has an option, so companies can send tape copies over a WAN connection to Symantec's SaaS data center.

However, such applications are rare at the moment. The amount of data needed for a full backup is too great for most enterprise WANs to handle right now. As higher speed WANs become more common, using SaaS services for tape backups should become feasible.

Having been in use for more than two decades, tape is a mature storage medium. Despite its age, tape storage continues to evolve and therefore remains an attractive option for many organizations.

About this author: Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who focuses on technology issues. He is based in Sudbury, Mass. and can be reached at

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