• 03/19/2012
    10:59 AM
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Emotion Vs. Logic: The Modern Role Of Tape

People love to hate tape. But tape today provides highly cost-effective and reliable answers to certain data storage challenges.
Ah, the fervor and passion that can exist in the gritty world of storage! If I were writing about the Middle East situation, or maybe which football team is better than another, or even which car to buy, some degree (well, all right a large degree) of bias, together with occasional inaccuracies and a healthy portion of downright emotion, would be expected. But the passion, deep-seated emotion and even vitriol that surfaces at the mere mention of tape--yes, tape--is a matter of mystery to me. In case you ever needed proof that all-too-often it's the misconceptions, perceptions and emotional biases that rule our superficially pragmatic--staid even--business, just try mentioning these four letters: T.A.P.E.

Based around some recent tape industry activity, I recently blogged about the fact that tape is more than alive and well ... in certain circumstances and for the right uses it actually merits more credit and attention than it has typically had. I finished the piece thus: "Perhaps the biggest obstacle the tape industry faces is indeed that not all decisions are made logically. Tape certainly has some "historical baggage" ... and today that manifests itself as a set of largely erroneous perceptions. It's the emotions that will matter for the next few years. Simple economics might force users to bite their tongues over the coming years--hating (or is that having?) to admit they love tape again." Whether it's due to serendipity or a scotoma, there seems to have been an uptick lately in group discussions and articles on the use and abuse of tape. I'll cover some of the key points here very briefly ... but the real point of this column is to reflect on the fact that such a supposedly fact- and detail-based business can be quite so emotionally based. It's like the storage crusades or primaries!

The summary situation is this: Because it is generally (and understandably) perceived as outdated, tape is a technology people love to hate. But the things that made it unlovable mostly belong to the past. Today, tape is arguably on the cutting edge in providing highly cost-effective and reliable answers to certain data storage challenges. It turns out that what is outdated is not tape itself but the perceptions of tape. While we've witnessed and embraced the rapid evolution of--say--processing power and solid state memory, a similar and no-less amazing forward leap in storage capacity, searchability, and reliability has been occurring in the tape world. Multi-TB cartridges are commonplace, and the enterprise tape business (still driven by some of the biggest IT names--IBM, Oracle, HP, and others) represents something in the region of $2.5 billion annual revenue for drives, libraries, and media.

Of course, there have been legitimate historical reasons to avoid the technology or to try to reduce its use, but the main ones have been, or are being, addressed; colloquially stated these reasons, and the quick ripostes, are:

-- "I can't find my data": There are many file systems that now work with tape and the LTFS tool makes tape cartridges "self-aware"--in other words, they are properly portable between systems with their contents shown upon being mounted; basically making tape cartridges just like a giant USB thumb/stick drive.

-- "Is the data actually there and still OK?": There is an increasing number of tape analytics tools that monitor and check the health of everything-tape: is the data actually written, can it be read, and then verifying that at user-determined schedules.

-- "Yeah, but c'mon, tape just hands-down isn't very reliable, is it!?": With modern drives and media, this is simply not true. The raw reliability of the media (measured in terms of hard errors) is in fact orders of magnitude better than it is for disks (why do you think we have RAID!?). To put this in perspective, for a mid-sized environment, disks would typically have a hard failure every few days or weeks (depending whether you're talking SATA, SAS, or FC), whereas tapes might be months (LTO) or many years (enterprise drives) between equivalent failures. Who knew, eh?


re: Emotion Vs. Logic: The Modern Role Of Tape

I think that one of the areas that tape has taken over completely is the idea of WORM media. Years and years ago, during the age of magneto-optical discs, it was great to have a location to dump bulk data that you wouldn't need immediate access to, but could not get rid of for compliance or other reasons.

Over the past few years, I've moved from working with organizations that had a few TB of storage to a few hundred TB of storage. In an organization with a smaller data store, it was relatively easy to use tape as a daily/weekly/monthly backup medium - even if the backup window was close to 84 hours for a full datastore backup. With you move up 10x or 100x in data store size, you start running into limitations of the technology with regards to transfer rates, etc. that do limit the role of tape in the enterprise.

I've often had to illustrate how tape can be seen as another tier with regards to a tiered storage solution, an idea that some people embrace and some simply don't understand. It's not that the technology doesn't have a place, the role has changed - and yes, tape still has a place in my datacenter.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor

re: Emotion Vs. Logic: The Modern Role Of Tape

Great post. As a small business that still provides a lot of tape to our customers, this was a refreshing break from the "tape is dead" articles.