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.

Mark Peters

March 19, 2012

6 Min Read
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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The summary situation is this: Because it is generally (and understandably) perceived as outdated, tape is a technology people love to hate.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 It turns out that what is outdated is not tape itself but the perceptions of tape.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?And furthermore, the lithographic advances necessary to drive improved disk areal density recording abilities are going (according to all reasonable measures and expectations) to get harder to come by than are the similar advances with tape. Partly this is an issue of engineering (there are major physical and mechanical "discovery" issues that need to be addressed in order to squeeze more disk bits closer together, whereas tape has a feature size that is 100X disk, which means that there is far more "developmental headroom" to work with); and partly it is an issue of pragmatic business (all development efforts need R&D funding and the disk business has pressures on its remaining suppliers right now, both from the Thailand situation and from the negatively changing type-mix--more high capacity, slower, cheaper, drives, and less lower capacity, faster, more expensive drives--that solid-state is beginning to force on HDD usage).

So it would seem that there's still a place for tape? Apparently in some quarters this is akin to suggesting that the world is flat!

Of course, tape's role as central to backup for virtually everyone has diminished; today's world moves faster than that and (often deduplicated) disk invariably provides the better performance (immediacy and recovery) that is vital. But simultaneously the world has also changed in terms of the sheer volume of data that many organizations need to simply keep (with a commensurately low likelihood of reference) for inordinately long lengths of time. Why would anyone want to store that data on anything other than the cheapest, most reliable media there is? And in that respect the power argument alone is enough to make the case for tape, irrespective of the cost-per-TB.

[ Another fan of tape asks an interesting question. Read Will Tape Replace The Hard Drive? ]

Now, of course, if an application needs fast or frequent response then tape is rarely going to be the answer. But when it comes to less active "cheap, deep, and forever" storage--whether that be for archive or Armageddon purposes--it's hard to argue with the facts. This may help explain why the emotional aspect has become so important! In some of the recent comments I've seen on this we have users that rail on both sides ... everything from (and I've paraphrased because this is a family publication!) "Why the heck would I use unreliable old tape that I can't do a fast recovery from and that everyone hates," to "You'd have to pry my tape library out of my cold, dead hand before I'd give it up."

This is not about being an apologist for the tape industry; it is absolutely about using the appropriate tools for appropriate jobs. Period. And the decisions in this respect should be objective and fact-based. Disk is good, solid state is good, tape is good--all have their place, and suggesting otherwise is specious. Not all applications or users will use all types of storage. But a proper evaluation of needs, resources and the accurate specifications and capabilities of the various storage options would simply seem like common-sense. Or not! At the risk of finishing on an emotional note, I love it! I shall weep tiers of joy ...

Mark Peters is a Senior Analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group, a leading independent authority on enterprise storage, analytics, and a range of other business technology interests.

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