Respect for tape: Perception shifts and myth busting

tape storage
(Image credit: Shutterstock / kubais)

Despite the ongoing evidence of tape storage advancements in tape’s reliability, longevity, density and cost-effectiveness, as well as its ability to complement other newer technologies, such as cloud and object storage, the perception that ‘tape is dead’ lingers.

About the author

Matt Ninesling is Director of Hardware Engineering at Spectra Logic.

But why does this tape myth persist? Is it because of decades-old memories of aging tape formats, reel-to-reel audio, and Betamax and VHS cassettes, which are as outdated as the perceptions themselves? In that view, tape is frozen in time, tarred with a vintage brush, and not fully recognized as a technology that continues to advance with the times. Some say ‘there is no rewind button for life’, yet for tape, a 60-year old technology that inherently moves backwards and forwards, tape has evolved to secure its rightful place in the data storage ecosystem, and quietly is beginning to get the recognition and respect it deserves.

Tape myths vs tape truths

Tape has proven itself to be a cost-effective and reliable leader in archive and is showing no signs of disappearing anytime soon. Regulatory requirements to store data ‘forever’ and the push towards data monetization are two major trends supporting its growth. The fact of the matter is that the largest organizations in the world, and even many cloud providers, are actually utilizing tape, with the former doing so for many years. Rather than tape disappearing, we are actually witnessing its resurgence. There is no medium in the world that has greater data density and a lower cost-per- terabyte than tape. Period.

Tape stores and protects the history and legacy of our world’s data on a grand scale, and it remains the only storage medium that can achieve this so far to date, to exabyte levels, across the board, reliably and cost-effectively. Which is why tape is easily and consistently the choice of the most data- hungry organizations in the world. Tape is the choice of industries such as high performance computing, scientific research, media and entertainment, cloud storage, education, healthcare, finance and traditional IT (and the list goes on), when it comes to tackling large and expanding workflows and meeting digital archive regulations for the long-term. Any data that is vital, that cannot be lost and must be protected, most often gets stored on tape.

It is ironic when you think that a ‘tape is dead’ naysayer is probably unknowingly typing their views on a social media platform or utilizing a search engine that is ultimately storing those very same comments and search preferences on, you guessed it -- tape.

Cost-efficiency and economies of scale

According to IDC, by 2025 the world could generate about 175 zettabytes of data 1. Considering that roughly 80% or more of typical data storage is made up of inactive data, it simply does not make economic sense to have large volumes of that data taking up valuable space on more expensive storage mediums, such as spinning disk or flash.

Tape embraces economies of scale. As scale increases, disk and flash only become more expensive. Whereas tape’s financial advantages over other storage mediums only increase with scale. With every new tape generation, significant capacity advancements are achieved. And with each new technology upgrade, the cost per gigabyte of tape storage decreases. This fact is wholly appreciated by organizations where data growth tends to outpace budgets, as it means corporations can leverage the advantages of tape to protect their burgeoning amounts of data for the long-term.

Tape vs cloud?

Another perception is: ‘why would we need tape when we have cloud?’ Cloud holds much promise in helping to realize new ways of working by greatly increasing our ability to collaborate in real time and access data from anywhere on any occasion. Its benefits never became more prevalent than during the events of 2020, with the massive shift to virtual work. But we must also remember that cloud is in fact just another data center, managed by an outside source, and the data residing there also needs to be managed, protected, and paid for by the organization.

Another reason that tape may be perceived as less modern is that it tends not to be as heavily marketed as cloud, which is still riding the new adoption wave as the next ‘shiny new thing’. But recognized or not, tape continues to work in the background, reliably doing its job safeguarding exabytes of data owned by some of the world’s biggest brands.

The reality is that tape is not actually in competition with cloud, but rather complements it. Tape’s ability to integrate with many other technologies like cloud, is a major benefit, and its inherent ‘air-gap’ capability (which allows data to be protected outside of the network) automatically bestows tape with a prominent and promising position as the on-premises insurance policy against the ever-growing threat of ransomware, especially with the increasing popularity of the hybrid cloud approach.

Tape: the foundation of hybrid cloud

The message here is perhaps not that one storage medium is better than another, but rather that each works best depending upon the circumstances and the storage requirements of the user, be it an individual, or an organization. In the main, cloud typically works well for consumers as well as small to medium-sized businesses, just as, these would not necessarily be the size of companies where tape is best utilized. And equally, cloud has not (so far) presented a viable option for large enterprises or organizations holding massive data sets, such as the high performance computing (HPC) industry, or organizations with hyperscale data centers, as the sheer costs in data retrieval and egress fees in the current cloud business model would be prohibitive and even catastrophic in the long-term.

However, with the new hybrid cloud approach, utilizing tape as the on-premises option opens a new door for enterprises with large volumes of data to utilize chosen, more manageable workflows through cloud. This then provides access to cloud’s benefits, whilst simultaneously protecting the bulk of data on tape. With tape’s ability to hold another copy of an entire enterprise’s data cost-effectively, that organization can then decide which workflows it chooses to run through cloud (or even various clouds with a multi-cloud approach), and gain access to its benefits, unhindered by cloud vendor lock-in or exorbitant fees when needing to retrieve data in the event of a manmade or natural disaster or incident, because it has tape as a fall back.

Tape reliability

Another myth that can easily be addressed concerns the reliability of tape. The fact is, tape is more reliable than disk and flash. The real investment is in buying a tape library. Once that is done, multiple copies of data can be made economically. Some argue that tape is slow, but when you think about the scale of carrying out the data restoration of an entire organization, recovering data from tape is faster than in any other medium, including cloud, because the bandwidth therein is prohibitive. Again, if you want to restore a single file, disk and cloud are fine, but the real security story (where the threat is that large volumes of vital information on servers or entire databases can be lost), is that with tape, everything can be reliably locked down, thus ensuring your data security story will have a happy ending.

Data protection and data resiliency

Today, organizations create data storage strategies that not only include data protection, but also ‘data resiliency’, which is the ability for data to ‘spring back’ once compromised. This can be achieved by having more than one copy of the data in different locations, with the capability of gaining access to all of the affected data in a timely manner. And thanks to technology advancements, tape can deliver on both fronts.

Tape innovation

This brings us to the other outdated concern, which revolves around the functionality of tape itself. But tape in use today is a very different animal to what it was years ago. Today, tape innovation goes hand-in-hand with advanced robotics and tape automation. Contrary to perception, tape achieves high availability and true redundancy with enterprise tape libraries supporting multiple robots in continuous uptime, creating flexibility with tape which was not possible decades ago.

Moreover, tape also has an enormous innovation support structure in the industry, including the Active Archive Alliance that brings all of the storage vendors together, specifically for tape and tape vendors. And of course, the LTO Consortium consistently publishes its established and lengthy LTO tape roadmap, showing tremendous commitment to LTO (Linear Tape Open) technology. Spectra Logic recently hit a notable milestone, achieving tape capacity of one exabyte in a single large tape library using LTO-9 technology.

Tape flexibility and integration: the object storage gateway

Tape drive technology has been leveraged to keep up with modern day updates in data centers. Unlike in days of old when Fiber Channel was the only connection in a data center, end users across a wide range of vertical industries now can also connect tape libraries and drives directly to their high speed Ethernet network, as well as utilizing the lower cost SAS tape drives in data center racks.

The other linchpin to tape’s flexibility and integrative capabilities is being able to move to a more modern object storage environment. A notable milestone in tape innovation allows applications to move data to an object storage gateway, receive an object ID, and that data then gets put on tape in a non-proprietary format. There were thousands of applications that were unable to take advantage of this before, as the object storage gateway to tape did not exist. Now even those applications can take advantage of tape. Buckets and policies can be set in advance, so data can be moved to tape or sent to a public cloud. An option can be set to replicate the data to multiple sites, or even to another object storage system. Which means that what can then be done with the data is limitless. And of course, making multiple copies on tape in this scenario will provide extra security and air gap protection, as previously stated.

All applications can now access tape, even data migration applications can be used to send information to tape and automatically retrieve it. In addition, the object storage gateway can now manage tape generation migrations automatically and seamlessly in the background, without the intervention of users and applications. This mitigates any overhead or extra burden on the systems and makes tape really easy to work with.

Finally, the topic of power usage is of growing importance, particularly within larger data centers. So it is noteworthy that tape actually has the lowest total cost of ownership and the best carbon footprint that you can put in a data center today. This factor will be of increasing value as saving energy is a priority that will persist in our world now and in the future.

With all of these capabilities, it is time for tape to take a bow and be recognized for the workhorse it is – with all of its modern merits and the enormous contribution it has made to preserving the world’s treasury of information. As the saying goes, ‘respect must be earned’, and given tape’s ubiquitous nature, its cost-effectiveness, reliability, scalability and the vital part it plays in preserving our digital heritage for the long-term, we believe that tape has more than earned its respect.

Matt Ninesling is Director of Hardware Engineering at Spectra Logic.