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The advantages of tape for backup and archive

The advantages of tape for backup and archive
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Today, we are on the cusp of a data storage and management revolution. Whilst organizations are looking to increase agility via the optimization of data management for rapid retrieval, remote collaboration and eventual monetization to drive greater business value, they are concurrently grappling with the inherent challenges of massive data growth and the complexity of legacy systems. Since up to 80% of data is typically stored on the wrong tier of storage, greater data control and IT efficiencies are achieved by cost-effectively storing and protecting data on the most suitable tier for the long-term. Therefore, choosing the right storage solution (or balance of solutions) for both active and inactive data is vital, and must be decided upon by weighing various economic, performance, accessibility and protection capabilities of each solution.

Despite some outdated perceptions, tape technology is a key player in fulfilling all of these criteria when it comes to storing inactive data. Tape has proven to be the cost leader in backup and archive for years and that is not changing anytime soon. With significant capacity advancements with every new tape generation, the cost per gigabyte of tape storage continues to decrease, meaning even rapidly growing environments where data growth often outpaces budgets can harness the advantages of tape for backup and archive. Here are some major reasons why implementing tape technology as a part of an overall data storage strategy for backup and archive should be considered:

Cheaper than cloud

One of the most important factors when deciding on a storage option is the total cost of ownership (TCO). Tape’s TCO is fairly predictable, with the greatest expense being the initial tape library. So how does tape technology compare to some of the cloud-based archiving options on the market today? The reality is that all on-premise storage is more affordable than cloud storage for long-term use. Cloud’s greatest cost advantage is that it is billed monthly as an operational expense, which translates into a very low cost of acquisition when compared to the greater upfront investment required to purchase tape hardware.

The key to a comprehensive cost analysis is to evaluate the total solution, how long data needs to be kept and how much data will be stored over time. When data capacity is high and moderate retention periods are in place, the cost of cloud quickly adds up. It is not the storing of data per se that is expensive on the cloud, but rather the high cost to move it and access it (egress charges).

Tape’s greater capacity roadmap

The economies of tape become evident when it comes to scale. With the majority of digital assets consisting of inactive files, the costs for organizations to keep spinning disk running to store that data are high. Tape serves as a virtually infinite and highly economical storage repository for large, unstructured data. In our big data world, tape outpaces disk, with significant financial advantages in storing data for long periods of time.

For example, disk drives have reached maximum capacity, providing 99 square inches of recordable space per drive. To achieve greater storage capacity, disk manufactures have been forced to create new methods of recording (shingled, heat, helium filled), but limitations are still a major hurdle.

As an alternative, LTO (Linear Tape-Open) is an adaptable and scalable industry standard open tape format that helps address the ever-increasing demands of data protection. LTO delivers secure and reliable long-term archival data storage at substantially lower cost than disk, flash or cloud, especially when factoring in considerations such as retrieval, power and cooling - making it a vital part of today’s storage infrastructure.

The latest ninth generation of LTO exceeds the per-cartridge capacity of its LTO-8 predecessor by 50 percent with 18TB native capacity. The most recent LTO roadmap lays out LTO technology’s predicted future per-cartridge capacities, with LTO-10 achieving up to 36TB native; LTO-11 up to 72TB native, and LTO-12 up to 144TB native, demonstrating that users will benefit from the lowest cost per gigabyte for tape storage. As each future generation of tape technology is released, customers can expect continual storage capacity increases. Despite growing data sets, tape technology design enables end users to either maintain a similar footprint or possibly shrink the footprint by upgrading to new tape generations.

Use case

STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (supporting an academic community of around 1,700 people who work in the U.K., Europe, Japan and the U.S. on particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy, including space science), utilizes tape to process and preserve more than 60PB of scientific research data, the equivalent of storing more than 10 million DVDs. The solution comprises a nine-frame tape library with 22 tape drives, allowing massive volumes of environmental data to be made available to environmental scientists in support of research well into the future.

Tape storage hits exabyte milestone

As of September 2020, the boundaries of tape technology have been further advanced with the news that by leveraging LTO-9 tape technology, the world’s largest tape library storage system now stores an industry-first exabyte (one million terabytes) of uncompressed data. With LTO-9 tape technology, and a maximum of 144 drives in this system, up to 207.4TB (518TB compressed) of data can be transferred per hour. This provides optimum storage density, scalability, reliability and affordability in the smallest footprint of any enterprise-class tape library.

Unsurpassed longevity and durability

Hard disk drives traditionally have a life of three to five years. Bare disk drives could last for even shorter periods with their unpredictability, and if they are stored outside of any kind of data monitoring system, the data could be inaccessible without the end user knowing it. When stored properly, tape media can last up to 30 years. Tape-based storage offers superior durability over traditional disk-based storage and most any modern storage medium. Furthermore, tape cartridges can be ejected and transported to any location in the world for safe keeping or disaster recovery.

Depending upon its size and an organization’s individual goals, tape can be leveraged to complement other storage media such as disk, object storage or cloud for a more cost-effective, manageable and secure storage strategy to suit requirements.

Use case

Imperial War Museums (IWM) wanted to more reliably store and manage critical data pertaining to wartime history. IWM implemented a large-scale data archiving solution, including two tape libraries, to address the museums’ archiving needs, providing the capacity, reliability and affordability to meet requirements. Object storage and nearline disk storage appliances were also deployed to allow the team to store its assets on multiple storage mediums, ensuring optimal digital preservation and protection for years to come. Data retrieval advancements

Significant technology advancements have been made in terms of tape’s data retrieval speed and the ability to seek and read multiple files. The backup and archiving of immense volumes of digital assets is an enormous undertaking, so the deployment of tape for data-hungry industries such as high performance computing, scientific research, media and entertainment, cloud storage, education, healthcare, finance and traditional IT, has been purposefully chosen as not only the most reliable medium, but also the fastest. Despite some perceptions, tape can transfer data at remarkably rapid rates, outpacing disk – while being highly scalable. And tape performance can be enhanced through expansion frames and the seamless installation of tape library upgrades.

For example, a 24-drive tape library can write 60TB of data per hour (or 1PB in less than a day / 10PB per week), whereas with cloud, there are limitations in terms of the control and flexibility of archiving speed. How fast data can be downloaded is reliant upon an organization’s bandwidth. 60TB of data archived to the cloud with a 1GB per second bandwidth would take six days or with the more typical 250 MB per second connection, it could take about 25 days to transfer that data to the cloud. The recall and restore times from cloud can be an extensive process.

Use case

ITV, the UK’s largest commercial television network, utilizes two tape libraries to protect and preserve the organization’s digital assets long-term. ITV was looking for a solution that was high-capacity, durable and scalable to support their current needs and future growth. The solution enables ITV to assure the ultimate safety and security of their content with a genetically diverse data preservation strategy by sending digital assets to dispersed data center locations on differing media types.

Protection from cyberattacks

Most tape cartridges typically reside in robotic tape library slots or in manually accessed media storage racks, meaning they are online only when the tape cartridge is mounted on the drive. The offline nature of tape inherently defines the “tape air gap” and has become a critical component of a robust data protection strategy to confront cybercrime, such as ransomware – rampant in these days of COVID. An air gap is an electronically disconnected or isolated copy of data that prevents cybercrime from attacking an organization’s backup, archive or other data. Without an electronic connection or pathway to tape (or any other type of offline media), files stored on tape cannot be hacked, encrypted, or deleted, meaning organizations do not have to pay hefty bitcoin ransoms.

Use case

The British Film Institute (BFI), the lead organization for film in the UK, deployed two tape libraries and two object storage systems for the long-term digital preservation of the UK’s film history, as part of its Unlocking Film Heritage digitization project. The project is one of the largest and most complex archive preservation programs ever undertaken in the UK, aiming to capture, store and preserve the UK’s film history. As part of the program, over 10,000 films from the BFI and UK regional and national film archives have been digitized and made available to the public, connecting audiences to the widest choice of British and world cinema. The solution will enable the BFI to protect and preserve its valuable digital assets for decades to come, and make its archives easily accessible to filmmakers, researchers and the general public.

Background migration

Two common points raised against tape technology is the migration process to new tape generations and the perception that tape has limited backwards compatibility. To put these claims into perspective, firstly, while migrating to new tape technology is something that can benefit customers dealing with growing data sets, there is no requirement to migrate data to the newest tape technology as soon as it is made available. Migrations should happen when it is best for the organization, be it for capacity reasons, to save money by improving density, performance increases or other feature changes. LTO tape technology can be supported through to the LTO-4 generation, which was released in 2007. If this same data was stored on disk, it would have had to be migrated two to four times by now given the three to five-year life of HDDs. With support of LTO-4, this data on tape still would not have to be migrated.

Moreover, new generations of tape technology can be purchased and implemented without data migration. The new tapes can simply be placed into a new library partition to which all new data can be written; any older data needing to be restored can be accessed with the older drives. In a backup environment, the older drives and media will expire with no migration necessary. In an archive environment, migrations are not required, but have become much easier with the assistance of other software and hardware packages.

So, given the many benefits of tape and its noteworthy advancements, it is high time outmoded perceptions were brought up to date. As we rapidly shift into a future where increasing numbers of organizations are seeking to utilize data as an economic asset, robust storage capabilities need to be put in place. And as a flexible, reliable, high-performing, safe and cost-effective long-term data storage solution, tape is the perfect contender for providing a solid foundation in helping organizations to achieve this goal.