As the amount of new data created is set to hit the multiple-zettabyte level in the coming years, where will we store it all?
With the release of LTO-8 and recent reports that total tape storage capacity continues to increase dramatically, tape is a strong option for long-term retention. But even tape advocates say it's going to take a comprehensive approach to storage that includes other forms of media to handle the data influx.
Tape making a comeback?
The annual tape media shipment report released earlier this year by the LTO Program showed that 108,000 petabytes (PB) of compressed tape storage capacity shipped in 2017, an increase of 12.9% over 2016. The total marks a fivefold increase over the capacity of just over 20,000 PB shipped in 2008.
LTO-8, which launched in late 2017, provides 30 TB compressed capacity and 12 TB native, doubling the capacities of LTO-7, which came out in 2015. The 12 TB of uncompressed capacity is equivalent to 8,000 movies, 2,880,000 songs or 7,140,000 photos, according to vendor Spectra Logic.
"We hope now [with] LTO-8 another increase in capacity [next year]," said Laura Loredo, worldwide marketing product manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, one of the LTO Program's Technology Provider Companies along with IBM and Quantum.
The media, entertainment and science industries have been traditionally strong users of tape for long-term retention. Loredo pointed to more recent uses that have gained traction. Video surveillance is getting digitized more often and kept for longer, and there is more of it in general. The medical industry is a similar story, as records get digitized and kept for long periods of time.
The ability to create digital content at high volumes is becoming less expensive, and with higher resolutions, those capacities are increasing, Quantum product and solution marketing manager Kieran Maloney said. So tape becomes a cost-efficient play for retaining that data.
Tape also brings security benefits. Because it is naturally isolated from a network, tape provides a true "air gap" for protection against ransomware, said Carlos Sandoval Castro, LTO marketing representative at IBM. If ransomware is in a system, it can't touch a tape that's not connected, making tapes an avenue for disaster recovery in the event of a successful attack.
"We are seeing customers come back to tape," Loredo said.
Tape sees clear runway ahead
"There's a lot of runway ahead for tape ... much more so than either flash or disk," said analyst Jon Toigo, managing partner at Toigo Partners International and chairman of the Data Management Institute.
Even public cloud providers such as Microsoft Azure are big consumers of tape, Toigo said. Those cloud providers can use the large tape storage capacity for their data backup.
Jon Toigochairman, Data Management Institute
However, with IDC forecasting dozens of zettabytes in need of storage by 2025, flash and disk will remain important. One zettabyte is equal to approximately 1 billion TBs.
"You're going to need all of the above," Toigo said. "Tape is an absolute requirement for storing the massive amounts of data coming down the pike."
It's not necessarily about flash versus tape or other comparisons, it's about how best to use flash, disk, tape and the cloud, said Rich Gadomski, vice president of marketing at Fujifilm and a member of the Tape Storage Council.
The cloud, for example, is helpful for certain aspects, such as offsite storage, but it shouldn't be the medium for everything.
"A multifaceted data protection approach continues to thrive," Gadomski said.
There's still a lot of education needed around tape, vendors said. So often the conversation pits technologies against each other, Maloney said, but instead the question should be "Which technology works best for which use?" In the end, tape can fit into a tiered storage model that also includes flash, disk and the cloud.
In a similar way, the Tape Storage Council's annual "State of the Tape Industry" report, released in March, acknowledged that organizations are often best served by using multiple media for storage.
"Tape shares the data center storage hierarchy with SSDs and HDDs and the ideal storage solution optimizes the strengths of each," the report said. "However, the role tape serves in today's modern data centers is quickly expanding into new markets because compelling technological advancements have made tape the most economical, highest capacity and most reliable storage medium available."
LTO-8 uses tunnel magnetoresistance (TMR) for tape heads, a switch from the previous giant magnetoresistance (GMR). TMR provides a more defined electrical signal than GMR, allowing bits to be written to smaller areas of LTO media. LTO-8 also uses barium ferrite instead of metal particles for tape storage capacity improvement. With the inclusion of TMR technology and barium ferrite, LTO-8 is only backward compatible to one generation. Historically, LTO had been able to read back two generations and write back to one generation.
"Tape continues to evolve -- the technology certainly isn't standing still," Gadomski said.
Tape also has a clearly defined roadmap, with LTO projected out to the 12th generation. Each successive generation after LTO-8 projects double the capacity of the previous version. As a result, LTO-12 would offer 480 TB compressed tape storage capacity and 192 TB native. It typically takes between two and three years for a new LTO generation to launch.
In addition, IBM and Sony have said they developed technology for the highest recording areal density for tape storage media, resulting in approximately 330 TB uncompressed per cartridge.
On the lookout for advances in storage
Spectra Logic, in its "Digital Data Storage Outlook 2018" report released in June, said it projects much of the future zettabytes of data will "never be stored or will be retained for only a brief time."
"Spectra's projections show a small likelihood of a constrained supply of storage to meet the needs of the digital universe through 2026," the report said. "Expected advances in storage technologies, however, need to occur during this timeframe. Lack of advances in a particular technology, such as magnetic disk, will necessitate greater use of other storage mediums such as flash and tape."
While the report claims the use of tape for secondary storage has declined with backup moving to disk, the need for tape storage capacity in the long-term archive market is growing.
"Tape technology is well-suited for this space as it provides the benefits of low environmental footprint on both floor space and power; a high level of data integrity over a long period of time; and a much lower cost per gigabyte of storage than all other storage mediums," the report said.