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Today's tape market offers improved data access and integrity

Recent developments in the tape market are making archive data more permanent, accessible and useful for organizations.

Tape libraries continue to offer more effective data management functionality as the medium continues on its path from backup to archive. Recent developments in the tape market are making archive data more permanent, accessible and useful for organizations.

"Things like LTFS [linear tape file system], coupled with tape analytics, can really help users tap into that tape environment," said Robert Amatruda, research director of data protection and recovery at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Corp. "A lot of that stuff was considered real ice-cold storage. In other words, you just back it up and put it away somewhere. Now customers are starting to be able tap into those archives."

Tape library hardware developments

Tape libraries today, of course, offer massive capacity. Spectra Logic's ExaScale T-Finity is capable of storing 1.2 exabytes (EB) with LTO-5 drives (2:1 compression) and 3.6 exabytes with TS1140 drives (3:1 compression). The IBM TS3500 can store 900 PB with LTO drives or 2.7 exabytes with TS1140 drives. And Oracle's StorageTek SL8500 Modular Library System offers 1 exabyte of capacity with linear tape open (LTO) drives.

But capacity is only part of the picture. While tape will never rival disk systems in access time, it is nevertheless an important feature -- especially as users move toward the sort of active archiving Amatruda suggested. To address access time issues, tape library robotics are becoming more sophisticated. One example is IBM's TS3500's Library Shuttle Connecter, which can connect up to 15 tape library frames. The company claims combining multiple library strings allows users to create an archive that gets more efficient usage of the tape drives across libraries.

Hardware innovation isn't limited to the very high end of the tape market, either. Quantum's Scalar i6000, which holds 15.6 PB with LTO-5 tape, this year added dual robotics for high availability, a feature more common among enterprise systems. The Scalar i6000's two robotic arms have access to all of the library's tape drives, and the library can operate on a single arm if one fails.

Software enables better data integrity and management

On the software side, there's a lot going on as well, with a number of products offering data integrity features designed to preserve data for long periods of time when using tape for archiving. Spectra's BlueScale management software offers data verification features that allow users to check the health of tapes over time to ensure stored data remains valid. The product's Media Lifecycle Management and Drive Lifecycle Management functions are designed to monitor the health of tape and drives to increase reliability.

Quantum's Extended Data Life Management (EDLM) software for Scalar libraries is also designed to ensure data integrity. EDLM offers policy-based scanning of tapes to discover data corruption. The software works in conjunction with the library and Quantum's StorNext file system to migrate data on a compromised tape to a working tape cartridge.

In April, Oracle announced its StorageTek Tape Analytics software, which "allows users to look at a geographically dispersed tape environment through a single pane of glass," according to Amatruda. "It's designed to be out of the data path, so it doesn't interfere with performance. It's scalable and proactive in terms of monitoring the tape environment."

There was also several recent software developments aimed at improving data access times. The latest version of Spectra's BlueScale, for example, increased barcode scanning speed over previous versions and added an XML Open Library application programming interface (API) so users could develop software apps to suit their own needs. The vendor claimed the faster barcode scanning will increase robotic performance for its enterprise and midrange tape libraries.

LTFS products emerging

The area that may be the most promising for easing access of data stored on tape is still fairly early in its development -- LTFS allows users to access data on tape using a file system as they would on disk.

One of the first products to take advantage of LTFS is Crossroads Systems' StrongBox appliance. The product offers a standard network-attached storage (NAS) interface, supporting Network File System (NFS) and Common Internet File System (CIFS), and sits in front of a tape library to offer file-level access to the system using LTO-5 tape and LTFS. Quantum is taking a similar approach with its Scalar gateway appliances. The gateway sits in front of a Quantum tape library and LTFS allows users to access files on tape using a file system format.

A number of vendors, including IBM and Oracle, have added native LTFS support to their tape libraries. For example, IBM's LTFS Library Edition allows access to all of the data in a tape library as if it were on disk.

LTFS access also allows data to be written to tape in a persistent format, ensuring data access from any platform going forward -- a key benefit for long-term data retention.

"LTFS frees the user up from being shackled to data written to tape using proprietary data formats that you need the third-party application [that was used to write the data to tape] to search for data," Amatruda said. "Over the long term, it frees users from having to maintain various versions of software in order to perform a successful restore."

Tape market is shrinking, still going strong in large companies and vertical markets

Overall, the tape market is shrinking, as it has been for years. Disk-based backup has chipped away at a big part of the market for tape. Many companies that relied on tape for backup in the past have moved to disk backup for its faster restores and relative ease of use. Some of those companies reuse their tape gear for archiving. Others, of course, have done away with it completely.

However, new tape equipment is being deployed -- particularly in very large companies. "In many cases, we are seeing large companies maintaining their tape infrastructure. In some cases, they may not be increasing the overall spend or footprint, but when they do refresh the technology, they are typically buying higher-density drives and libraries," Amatruda said.

He also noted that he's seeing new tape investment in verticals such as media and entertainment, oil and gas exploration and medical imaging. "IBM, for example, has been aggressive in going after customers with LTFS, particularly in media and entertainment, where there are large data sets and the need to be able to easily extract data," he said.

Going forward, it will be interesting to watch how tape vendors continue to respond to the push to store data for longer periods of time as organizations seek to make use of information as it ages.

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