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Is Tape Storage Really Dead?

Rumors of the death of tape having been circulating for about 30 years! Once the only way to store data for any length of time, tape was relegated to a backup and archiving tool as disk became pervasive. The fundamental economics behind this trend derived from the relatively high price of drives, both as units and on a dollar-per-gigabyte basis, which made disk cost prohibitive for long-term storage.

But now with the cloud taking over the backup and archiving role, it looks like tape storage might actually be nearing its final days.

Early on, tape media became a standardized consumable with numerous, interchangeable suppliers. Media usually was purchased from distributors and the resulting price was in the tens of  of dollars range for most of the past 30 years. With the lowest price hard disk drive at around $2,000 list price from the likes of EMC, tape was a very attractive offline storage alternative for old data that needed to be kept for a while.

A large ecosystem grew up around tape: storage in salt mines, spooling services to prevent the tape turning into a useless solid mass, and tape rotation methods to keep many copies available of any data made sense. Technologically, tape grew capacity, though not as fast as disk drives did.

All of this worked well for the tape industry until the arrival of cloud storage. Now, instead of buying tapes every month, companies can get backup and archiving on a rent-as-you-go basis. Prices started low and then a price war (now in its 4th year) has driven the cost of that cloud storage way down even more. As if this wasn’t enough, AWS announced a Glacier service that used big tape libraries to store data, and Google quickly followed with its Nearline disk system that allowed much faster recovery.

Monthly cloud storage prices currently are in the  cent-per-gigabyte  range. With Nearline, there’s  no charge for loading data into the system, but there is a recovery charge. Compared with tape media, this is still a bit expensive, since a $30/TB tape is cheaper than the $120 annual cost for a terabyte of Nearline, but the cost of media is the tip of the iceberg with tape storage.

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First, cloud archiving includes all of the replica charges, which would typically triple that tape media cost. Then there is the cost of the tape library, which needs to be amortized across the tapes. For large libraries, this dwarfs the media cost, making the cloud approach economically very attractive.

Next we have all the labor to handle tapes and costs of storing them offsite. The cloud approach is completely hands-free and can be automated, so all the labor costs are obviated. The bottom line is that for most users, we’ve reached the point where tape’s advantage over storage on disk has been supplanted by the cloud’s advantage over tape.

To turn the screw even further, recovery of data stored in a distant salt mine is a multi-day affair, while cloud archives (at least Google Nearline) can be accessed in seconds. This has a major impact on the real purpose of archiving and backup, which is to get the data back quickly when local copies are lost or a disaster occurs. Moreover, tape access is serial, while a cloud system can go directly to the needed object.

Some of the arguments used against cloud storage hinge on security, but per IDC, some 60% of IT management think the cloud is more secure than private systems, so this argument is weak and dated.

Disks use electricity, but archives spin drives down to idle. New solid-state drives can get idle power into the milliwatt range, so this issue is moot too. Arguments about longevity are weak. While spinning disks do wear out, cloud service providers  are continually cycling drives so that failed units get replicated from the remaining copies to maintain the number of copies  to protect any piece of data. Likewise, SSDs have a write wear problem, but archived data is typically write-once so this isn’t an issue, while SSDs are more reliable than HDDs.

However, tape technology hasn’t given up. IBM has yet another high-density tape in the pipeline, but costs are going to be high for both media and libraries. SSD technology is rapidly driving capacity upward and prices are dropping. The pace of these advances are  faster than the tape industry is able to achieve, which means the cloud’s TCO advantage will increase.

All of these trends are arrows in the heart of tape. We are seeing tangible signs of the end of the tape saga. While 59% of users still backup to tape, 41% have defected to the cloud, and much of that was before Nearline arrived in 2015 and the monthly price hit one cent per gigabyte per month. Bellwether Quantum Corp continues to see declines both in tape and tape media segments of its business. Moreover, the list of tape media vendors is really short.

Tape is finally looking very unhealthy, with a short life expectancy. Still, IBM just unveiled a 225TB cartridge in its R&D lab, and if Apple loses its battle over privacy with the FBI we might just see CIOs wanting to keep their old data on tapes for a while longer.