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Tape data storage industry tackles challenges, archival uses

The tape data storage market has confronted a major legal issue and a pandemic. Buoyed by strong archival use and offline protection, capacity shipments rose last year.

With the increase in digital work and life as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the world is creating more data. Much of that data is immediately becoming archival, according to Fred Moore, president of storage consulting firm Horison Information Strategies.

"Data is piling up a lot faster than can be analyzed," Moore said. "There is an archival pileup now."

It's accumulating so fast that some organizations don't know how much they have. Moore recently spoke to one organization that thought it had 5 PB of archival data. Instead, it had 50 PB.

The good news for the tape data storage industry, Moore said, is tape's best use is as an archive.

Tape was on an upward path before the pandemic hit. With high-capacity LTO-8 cartridges on the market following the resolution of a media supplier lawsuit, the LTO industry set a record for yearly capacity shipped in 2019.

How the tape industry is handling archives, pandemic effects

While the use of digital tape for backing up primary disk systems has declined in recent years as backup has moved to disk-based technology, the need for tape in the long-term archive market continues to grow, according to Spectra Logic's "Digital Data Storage Outlook 2020" report released in July.

"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 any other storage medium," the report said.

In addition, large cloud providers are using tape for backing up their data farms or for providing an archive tier of storage to their customers, according to the report.

Moore, though, feels that the tape data storage industry has done an inefficient job of promotion.

"People don't know much about tape right now," Moore said.

The industry should be more welcoming of archival use, Moore said, and going after data that's spinning on disk at a higher cost and energy use.

At least 60% of all data can be classified as archival, and this could reach 80% or more by 2025, making it the largest and fastest growing storage class, according to Moore.

Spectra Logic compiled the fifth edition of the report, an annual overview of trends and predictions in storage technology development and availability, as the coronavirus pandemic was in its early stages.

"The pandemic has resulted in a very high level of uncertainty in all markets with the storage market not being an exception," the report said. "For this reason, we are predicting lower capacity storage growth for 2020."

Spectra Logic CTO Matt Starr said some installations were delayed because of the pandemic, but the company is using alternative methods. For example, Spectra did a virtual installation of a large tape subsystem for a TV station in Vietnam.

"The customer was pressed for time," Starr said. "And you have to work around it."

The media and entertainment industry, typically a major tape customer, took a hit with so many live events canceled because of the coronavirus. However, other organizations are using tape more. For example, churches that used to be mainly in person are creating more digital content now, Starr said.

Tape sales heat up after lawsuit ends

In 2019, before the pandemic hit, a record 114,079 PB of compressed tape data storage capacity shipped, according to the LTO Program's Media Shipment Report released in July.

LTO-8, the most recent version of LTO, offers 30 TB of compressed capacity. The LTO roadmap runs up through the 12th generation, which is slated to offer nearly half a petabyte of compressed capacity on one tape.

"There's a huge runway there with no major limits except legal," Moore said.

Capacity shipments declined in 2018 because of a "pause in manufacturing" of tape cartridges, according to the LTO Program.

That pause was the result of a patent infringement lawsuit between the market's two tape media suppliers, Fujifilm and Sony, which ended in August 2019.

I stay pretty bullish on tape. Because there's always a place in the market for the most cost-effective storage.
Matt StarrCTO, Spectra Logic

Moore said he talked to tape companies about the lawsuit but got a different story from each one.

"I heard it all and I can't tell you for sure what happened," he said.

Rich Gadomski, vice president of marketing at Fujifilm, said he couldn't comment on how the companies resolved the litigation.

"We're glad that's behind us," Gadomski said.

It took about 1 1/2 years, but Spectra Logic's Starr said he feels the tape data storage world is on "pretty sound footing."

"A legal fight is good for no one," Starr said.

Before the resolution, tape customers could purchase LTO-7 media labeled "Type M" that, when initialized in an LTO-8 drive, provided a compressed capacity of 22.5 TB, a 50% increase over traditional LTO-7.

Fujifilm in September 2019 announced immediate availability of LTO-8 cartridges.

"The market was waiting for it," said Carlos Sandoval Castro, worldwide tape offering manager at IBM, one of the LTO Program Technology Provider Companies, with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Quantum.

Sandoval Castro noted that LTO-8 was only on the market for two quarters of 2019, and the shipped capacity still hit a record level.

Chart of LTO capacity shipped

Tape benefits include rising capacities, air gap

LTO-8 provides native transfer speeds of up to 360 MB per second and compressed speeds of up to 750 MB per second. The native rate is faster than the latest generations of hard disk drives with transfer rates of 210 MB per second, according to the LTO Program.

Tape data storage also offers an inherent air gap, which keeps it safe from cyber attacks. Ransomware and other cybersecurity issues have been prominent during the pandemic, with many employees working from home in less secure environments.

"With the increase of the ransomware threat, I think it opened up the avenue to reconsider tape," said Diana Salazar, product marketing manager at Quantum.

Tape management has become easier and more hands-off, thanks to automation in libraries.

"Your libraries are self-sufficient most of the time," said Laura Loredo, worldwide product manager at HPE.

Chart of LTO roadmap

With LTO-9 coming soon, there will be another capacity jump. Early projections show a compressed capacity of 60 TB per cartridge. Final LTO-9 specifications should come out by the end of 2020, according to the LTO Program.

"I stay pretty bullish on tape," Spectra Logic's Starr said. "Because there's always a place in the market for the most cost-effective storage."

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