Reintroducing Tape to the Modern Data Center – Myth Busting Tape’s Shortcomings

To many IT professionals, tape media and tape libraries seem like an ancient technology used by the “old” IT guys. The reality is tape as a technology can be of significant value to the organization. Almost every data center is experiencing explosive data growth and tape can stem the tide. In addition, tape provides the ultimate protection from cyber-attacks. Before we explore the value of tape to a modern data center though let’s address a few persistent myths about tape. The most common tape myths are that tape is unreliable, provides slow data access and is difficult to operate. Let’s examine each of these myths one by one.

Myth 1: Tape Isn’t Reliable

Some people, maybe even you, have said that tape reliability is questionable. You might be surprised to learn that tape is actually more reliable than all other media formats, and its reliability increases when it’s implemented in the correct way.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify a single report or study that backs up the claims of unreliability. So where does this claim come from? The myth apparently originated in the 1990s and early 2000s with emerging disk backup appliance vendors and some good old-fashioned scare tactics for the sake of sales. The sales pitch sometimes went so far as to seek credibility by citing studies from third parties like the Gartner Group and The Yankee group – studies that didn’t exist. Neither organization ever concluded that tape had higher failure rates.

It’s reasonable to assume that most IT professionals in that era had experienced a tape media or tape drive failure at one time or another. But it’s more than likely they experienced disk media failures too. So predictable was disk failure that, by the late 1990s, data protection algorithms like mirroring or RAID were considered a requirement. Interestingly enough, tape media was generally so reliable that the concept of mirroring tape copies never really took off.

Unlike hard disk drives, tape media’s biggest reliability challenge comes from its portability, which can invite the potential for classic human fallibility and clumsiness. The scene is easy to imagine – an IT admin accidentally drops a tape while walking across the data center floor. With no witnesses, he doesn’t report it and places it back in the library. On a subsequent use, that damaged tape fails.

Modern tape libraries address this portability challenge by simply taking us lumbering humans out of the equation as much as possible. Libraries now have the capability to eject tapes directly into a shock absorbent carrier.

Returning to the studies – while there’s nothing declaring tape to be less reliable, there are plenty of studies showing that tape is more reliable than disk media and has been for years. There are also studies indicating that tape drives are increasing in reliability over time. And no study has concluded that robot arms inside libraries have ever been a significant source of failures.

In fact, according to the 2019 INSIC report, tape’s key durability benefits compared to hard disk drives can be summarized as:

  • Tape has 30-year life compared to HDD’s maximum five years
  • Tape has more than five orders of magnitude lower bit error rate (BER) compared to HDD
  • Tape has 50 times lower annualized failure rate (AFR) compared to HDD

When tapes are stored and operated in the recommended environmental conditions and their usage doesn’t exceed the End of Life media wear numbers, tape offers extremely high durability.

Myth 2: Tape has Slow Access

The big three media formats — flash, hard disk and tape — are like a rock-paper-scissors game for modern data centers. Each format is a winner in different scenarios. Tape provides excellent sequential performance so it’s ideal for large data movements like a backup job or restoring multiple servers at once. Individual file restores are a less ideal use case for tape. But in situations like archiving, where time sensitivity is less of an issue, tape is more than acceptable especially when other factors like cost per TB and low power consumption are considered. Interestingly enough, flash is putting far more price per GB pressure on hard disk than it is on tape.

The data center should use each of these media formats for their designed purpose: flash for storage-intensive applications where data is active most of the time; hard disk as an intermediary storage location; and tape media as a long-term storage location.

Storage Switzerland strongly believes that using tape for both archive and backup use cases is ideal. While archive is the default use case for tape, most backup data sets are stored for seven or more years. The likelihood of a time sensitive recovery from anything but the latest backup is unlikely.

Myth 3: Tape is hard to operate

The modern tape environment almost always includes a sophisticated tape library that automatically mounts and unmounts tape cartridges as they’re needed. Most traditional backup applications like Commvault, Veritas, Dell Networker and IBM Spectrum Protect (formally Tivoli Storage Manager) as well as newer solutions like Veeam Backup and Replication, all support tape media and tape libraries. In fact, officials from Veeam (a company that was a disk-only backup solution) constantly state that their customers are leveraging their tape module. Most of these solutions will buffer data to disk and then can automatically copy or move that data to tape. Today’s tape libraries also track details like capacity, media usage and media location.

Thanks to this automation, today’s data centers can expect to interact with a tape library in much the same way that they interact with any backup software or even their regular file systems.

Conclusion – Myth status: BUSTED

The myths suggesting that tape is somehow inferior are invalid and based on twenty year-old rumors and hearsay (if not outright conspiracy). The modern tape library can seamlessly coexist with the rest of the modern architecture and not add operational overhead. With tape in the mix, the organization is set to benefit from its many advantages including low cost, low power consumption, air gap protection, long-term shelf life and media diversity. Our next blog starts this journey by discussing the role tape plays in the modern data protection or retention infrastructures and how modern organizations should build tape into those infrastructures.

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Twelve years ago George Crump founded Storage Switzerland with one simple goal; to educate IT professionals about all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought after public speaker. With over 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN, Virtualization, Cloud and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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One comment on “Reintroducing Tape to the Modern Data Center – Myth Busting Tape’s Shortcomings
  1. […] Tape to the Modern Data Center”. In the series, respected industry analyst George Crump debunks common myths about tape’s reliability, access and operations, explains tape’s role in the modern infrastructure, and […]

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