Keeping it reel - why tape storage isn't going away

By Peter Gothard
10 Jan 2014 View Comments

Ker-click, ker-klunk, whirr. Chances are, if you’ve been in IT for the past couple of decades or more, you’ll be more than familiar with the concept of tapes to back up (or even stream) critical data.

Further reading

But despite numerous advances in storage technology since tape’s heyday in the late 1990s, a surprisingly large number of organisations still use the technology as their primary storage medium.

Paul Le Messurier, programme and operations manager at data recovery firm Kroll Ontrack, believes the main reason for this is the technology’s proven reliability.

“Tape technology has been around for a long time and been regarded as reliable, though there’s always the risk of degradation if stored off-site,” Le Messurier says.

“I think there’s still the feeling that SSD [solid state disk technology] is still relatively new. It’s believed there may still be manufacturing problems with it.”

Another advantage with tape, says Le Messurier, is that data can be recovered in the event of the tape being damaged or corrupted, whereas when an SSD fails it tends to take all the data with it. “SSD can be quite difficult to recover in comparison,” he says.

When Computing has spoken to SSD vendors in the past, after the obligatory sales pitches about their own particular “best way” of physically creating solid state memory, comparisons between different “qualities” of flash are always made in terms of number of rewriting opportunities onto the memory. Cheaper materials lead to a more rapidly degrading oxide layer between the floating gate and substrate areas of the chip, and mean less read and write cycles can be carried out before the memory dies.

Tape is wonderfully more analogue in nature than this. You can dig out an old vinyl LP after years in storage and be fairly confident that it will work, whereas your hard drive with your MP3 collection on it could fail at any given moment. It seems that this SSD “sudden death syndrome” is still putting many people off this form of storage for critical data.

Cost and connectivity – or a lack of – are other factors behind tape’s continuing popularity, says Le Messurier.

“In some industries one of the key things may be to hold data off-site,” he says. “For example, we had a client coming to us recently and they wanted us to completely copy a whole set of tapes. I guessed that they’d been pressured to make a total copy in an audit.

“If you put some data to a hard drive or an SSD, it may be costly to do that, to buy it and then also take it to another location,” he says.

But more importantly, any storage medium that links to a network is inherently vulnerable.

“We’ve seen cases where disgruntled employees have deleted not just data but also backups of data, so anything linked up online could still be at risk of that happening. With tape, that’s not a problem,” says Le Messurier.

Jacky Constantine is finance and IT manager at Luton Community Housing (LCH), and has recently struck a deal to begin moving the organisation’s previously tape-based backup entirely to a more modern solution: the cloud. Over an indeterminate period in the near future, LCH will start by backing up to both tape and its cloud storage provider, eVault.

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