Most IT professionals, at least those over thirty, were probably introduced to tape as part of the backup system. For years tape drives and libraries have been the primary repositories for backup data, most recently with the LTO (Linear Tape Open) format. In the past decade, however, disk-based backup has largely replaced the use of tape. But in some industries and use cases tape has been doing just fine, first as a long-term archive medium and then as a way to transport and share large file data. In 2014 tape is poised to re-emerge in more mainstream IT environments and non-backup use cases, thanks to the explosion of unstructured data and the proliferation of the cloud. For IT professionals, there are five takeaways from 2014 that help explain how tape has pulled off this comeback.
# 1 – Tape is not dead
While its role in backup has diminished, tape for archive is growing. For the last several years tape has been ‘living large’ in the Media and Entertainment (M&E) space – these are the broadcast companies that have enormous archives of digital content and the companies that make software and all the technology to create that content from raw video files. Even before the cloud companies M&E was dealing with petabyte scale data sets and tape was their go-to technology.
Tape also provided a way to easily move large files around in an organization and to share files across platforms and between companies. With its ability to hold several TB of data in a portable container LTO tape makes the movement of raw video files from cameras on location back to a central repository, and then out to contractors doing post-production work on those files. And it can do so regardless of the platform or the network infrastructure in use.
#2 – Tape is not dead in mainstream IT
In M&E the idea that tape is dead does indeed seem a little ridiculous, as these companies have typically had just too much data to store on any kind of disk system, exclusively. But now tape is moving into more traditional IT use cases as well. As we discussed in a recent article an explosion of digital content data sets and the requirement to keep those assets for extended periods of time, sometimes forever, is causing storage problems for organizations of all types and sizes. One example is video surveillance data. Companies and municipalities are capturing an enormous amount of video data, which for legal reasons can have a very long ‘shelf life’.
But for cloud-based businesses, such as web companies and cloud service providers, these challenges are amplified. They’re tasked with storing increasingly large files that get created by users but seldom modified. These large archives of unstructured data, like cloud backup, social media, online photo, video and audio, etc, need to be kept and kept accessible. Thankfully, tape technology has been evolving to help meet this challenge.
#3 – Tape has actually been innovating
A couple years ago the LTO Consortium, the group of tape manufacturers that includes IBM, HP and Quantum, released LTFS, the Linear Tape File System. This open source software made LTO tape ‘file aware’, enhancing its functionality significantly and making tape a viable alternative to disk-based storage in a number of new use cases. In other words for the first time tape became “clickable”. You could interact with data stored on tape directly from Windows Explorer, Macintosh Finder or the Linux command line.
For the M&E space, LTFS solidified tape’s position as an industry standard for data capture, transfer, archive and interchange. It’s almost completely removed any proprietary hold applications had on data that was formerly written to LTO tape. In fact an increasing number of studios require that media be sent to them on LTFS formatted tapes.
With a searchable index written on each cartridge, LTO has become essentially a multiple-terabyte ‘thumb drive’, giving users a simple, high-capacity storage area. This file awareness also makes LTO tape much easier to integrate into new environments, such as video surveillance.
#4 – Tape has put Connectivity Problems to REST
Historically, tape has required a specific software layer in order to interface with random-access storage devices like disk arrays. For years this took the form of either a dedicated archiving software solution or specific tape drivers integrated into applications that were used in tape-based environments. This fact alone kept tape from being used perhaps as widely as it could have been in mainstream IT environments and in new applications being rolled out in the cloud.
With the advent of the cloud and environments such as Amazon Web Services, REST (REpresentational State Transfer) interfaces like Amazon’s S3 (Simple Storage Service) have become somewhat of a de facto protocol for the cloud. In the fall of 2013, one tape vendor, Spectra Logic, released an open source interface derived from S3, called DS3 (Deep Simple Storage Service) and developed an interface appliance to provide a seamless connection between REST-enabled applications. DS3 also allows tape to be directly connected to object storage systems, the technology that’s becoming the standard for “big” file storage and the cloud.
#5 – Tape is Now Ideal for Storing Unstructured Data
Object-based storage architectures are replacing traditional RAID-based arrays for storing large, unstructured data sets due to its efficiency, ability to grow almost without limit and its economics. But the costs associated with long-term operation of disk arrays (power, cooling, floorspace and administration) can still make even object storage unfeasible. Tape’s extremely high storage density and ability to power off while not in use makes it an ideal long-term archive technology.
Object storage systems use REST interfaces to connect to applications and the cloud. Now, they can be easily connected to tape storage as well, thanks to DS3, making tape an ideal archive tier for companies keeping large data sets or cloud providers. Goggle and Amazon both use tape in this manner. As object-based storage technologies proliferate, we see tape as an ideal compliment to increase capacity and overall economics, especially for the long term.