Survival of the Fittest
To borrow Mark Twain’s famous quip, reports of magnetic tape's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Like all design classics, it does the job it was intended to do in ways that modern solutions struggle to match. One key to the survival of tape, is the sense of security that it engenders, but this can be an illusion if organisations fail to treat this vulnerable old-timer with the respect that it deserves.Storage technologies have come a long way in the past 50 years; 10½ inch open reels have evolved into quarter inch cassettes and these in turn gave way to today’s virtualised storage environments.By rights, the magnetic tape cassette should be sitting in a dusty box next to an eight track music cassette in history's attic, yet according to the 2008 survey from Gartner Group, magnetic tape remains the backup medium of choice for 90% of organisations – Why ?
Magnetic tape has kept pace with fast changing storage demands. Modern formats hold up to 1.6 terabytes of data, making them cost effective competitors in the portable storage market. Demand is increasing with LTO drive shipments up by 15% in 2007 and tape cartridge shipments up 10% in 2008. Manufacturers including Fuji, HP and IBM are investing large sums to ensure that tape continues to meet requirements of the changing storage market. There's life in the old dog yet, and it may learn a few more tricks before it’s done.If there’s data that you simply cannot afford to lose, an analog tape cassette can be a more comforting proposition than the seemingly ethereal digital alternative. Tape's are something physical in a virtual world ; you can see your data, touch it, and know that it is there. Tapes are also easy to take offsite from the data centre for archive purposes and help to provide business continuity in the event of a disaster. There is a perception that digital storage has yet to fulfil this very human need for visible security. It’s understandable that so many customers refer to tape as their ‘comfort blanket’.
Underpinning the psychological aspect is sound reasoning. IT professionals have grown up with tape – you don't need new hardware, or re-training and it works.
As an extra added benefit, it's a green solution – It's a single hit in terms of power useage – a terabyte of tape costs nothing to store whilst a terabyte of digital needs energy to survive.
Both formats have their unique strengths, which is why so many companies see them as complimentary technolgies. Or to put it another way, using both means not all their eggs are in the one storage platforms basket.
In a daunting regulatory environment, tape is a convenient method of saving everything should it be needed again. But a word of warning, the 'if in doubt, save it' approach can to a dangerous one. Unnecessary data retention can carry a penalty just as harsh as failure to store required data. This is an area that requires specialist knowledge, not blind hope.In some cases, tape cassettes may be taken offsite by members of staff who store them at home. This scenario repesents a missing link in the chain of custody. Tapes will probably be placed in a bag which can easily be left on a taxi, bus or train. In a matter of moments the critical data is lost forever.Should it arrive home in one piece, the tape is far from secure. In the short term, above and beyond unlikely (but possible) events such as fire or theft, the metal oxides in tape are extremely vulnerable to moisture and temperature swings. Think of something as common as a spilled mug of coffee and you get the idea.In the longer term, the likelihood of the ‘unlikely’ cataclysm increases, but so too does the potential for environmental demage. Even if the tape escapes direct contact with liquid, moisture in the atmosphere will begin to corrode the metal. Taking the safer option to store tapes in a vault at your bank is also flawed, because the need to access the data may not fall within banking hours.And finally, there’s a more sinister possibility – a trusted employee can become a disgruntled one, and this represents a real danger.
Simply because tape is seen as robust and relatively low tech, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat it with respect.
A professional data storage company will pick up and deliver tapes around the clock, even loading and unloading it to servers where required. Transport is at stable temperature, secure and satellite tracked. Once at the storage facility, tapes are protected by 24-hour security. Monitored environmental conditions ensure that moisture and temperature variations are kept well away from the precious metals that store the data.
All organisations need to guard against data mishandling because - whether caused by lost luggage, vengeful employees, or even unstable coffee mugs – the consequences can be catastrophic.
Tape is the greatest survivor, and by combining it’s strengths with long standing and professional expertise, all organisations can ensure that the data the tape contains is fit for purpose and similarly long lived.
Records Management Society Bulletin - April 2010