Tape should be a critical component of every data center. As a medium, it is cost effective and easy to transport. It also provides diversity as an offline alternative media choice to hard disk based technology. The problem is that tape has a hard cost and operational overhead plus an unfamiliarity that makes IT default to what they know, disk. Interestingly the cloud is an ideal place to host tape services because it is possible to allocate the hardware more granularly and the provider could provide operational assistance. The problem is most cloud providers offer neither option.
If one could leverage tape without the upfront expenses and operational overhead then returning to tape or increasing the organization’s investment in tape would be an easy decision for the data center. Despite the declining cost of flash and hard disk technology, tape remains the price leader from both a cost per GB perspective and a power requirement perspective. While both flash and disk capacities have continued to increase, tape has outpaced them both. From a power perspective, a tape in a slot in a library requires zero power. Tape is also the only technology designed specifically to be offline. Offline means it can’t be impacted by cyber-attacks and malware. Finally, tape provides an organization with a sort of genetic diversity to their data, providing an alternative storage mechanism than the typical disk infrastructure.
Is Tape Reliability a Myth?
The biggest concern is reliability and it is not a legitimate concern per se. Tape media is actually far more reliable than hard disk and flash drives. What leads to the reputation of tape being unreliable is the amount of human interaction that surrounds the typical tape investment. Tapes often experience rough treatment as humans manually eject them from the library, carry them across the data center (occasionally dropping them), not so gently placing them into a shipping container and shipping them offsite. If it were possible to design the tape architecture so humans would never touch the media or to have humans tasked with maintaining the integrity of the data on that tape being the only ones managing it, then organizations would achieve reliabilities higher than flash or disk.
The Real Problem – The Cost of Tape Infrastructure
Tape vendors are quick to point to how cost competitive tape is, compared to disk. The problem is the cost per GB of tape isn’t realistically calculated. When vendors state the cost per GB of tape they simply take the cost of media, divided it by how much data can be stored on the tape and end up with fractions of a penny per GB. This is an oversimplification of a true cost calculation. To write data on that tape the organization needs at least one tape drive and to be of practical use, also requires automation, which means a tape library. Multiple tape drives and a library with a robot arm are not inexpensive investments to say the least. This means that realistically if IT is going to invest in a tape infrastructure it needs to have high double-digit terabytes (TBs) of data and preferably triple digit TBs if not petabytes. Lots of data leads to a big tape library. Although the cost per GB of the actual media is impressive, the upfront cost of tape drives and an automated tape library, along with associated maintenance and service costs as well as tape offsite storage costs, cause many organizations to not invest in tape.
This is why Tape as a Service is ideal. The provider has already paid for the drives and the library. The organization is only paying for the media and the rental of the drives.
It is true that some tape library vendors can start small and expand the library over time. But, the upfront investment is still difficult to justify here since the organization that would purchase this type of tape library has less data.
Another challenge with tape is the operational and service expenses. Tape can also be difficult to integrate into today’s existing data protection and data archive architectures. Many modern software solutions cannot write to tape and many others only provide very basic support.
The service expense is not because tape media is any less reliable, in fact multiple studies show tape to be more reliable. The service cost is to maintain the library and drives, which will fail more frequently, compared to other data center components, because they are mechanical devices with many more moving parts.
Tape as a Service shines through again here. The provider can help with integration into existing solutions, manage the tape component of that solution and is responsible for all service expenses.
Understanding Tape as a Service
Tape as a Service provides a tape library, or a section of a tape library, as a service in the cloud. The organization can rent just the capacity they need instead of purchasing and managing the whole tape library. Since the tape drives are seldom in use 100% of the time, sharing them across multiple customers is a viable strategy. For years, tape libraries have been able to allocate resources to specific applications, so expanding this capability to allocate tape resources to specific customers is not too far of a reach. As a result, this largely eliminates the upfront cost concerns of tape.
Tape as a Service also addresses another key concern, the operational overhead of using tape. With Tape as a Service the provider can manage the tape integration with the data protection software as well as ensuring that non-tape supporting applications are able to integrate with the solution.
Tape as a Service allows the organization to take full advantage of tape costs while avoiding its major downside. Iron Mountain, a company with sixty-seven years of experience storing all kinds of backup and secondary data, now provides Tape as a Service.
Tape has major advantages in terms of cost and security for the organization willing to invest in the architecture. The problem is many IT planners see that investment as a risk. Tape as a Service solutions, like those from Iron Mountain, provide a way for organizations to take advantage of tape’s cost savings and genetic data diversity while not forcing the organization to buy and learn tape architecture best practices.
To learn more about Tape as a Service and how to solve more of your secondary storage problems, join Storage Switzerland and Iron Mountain for our live webinar “Can the Cloud Save IT from the Secondary Storage Deluge”.