Tale of the Tape: Magnetic media won’t go away

There is only so much money Brian Beamish can spend on storage, and it’s not going to be on the hardware.

As manager of informatics planning and development at Canadian Ice Services, Beamish has been responsible for backing up and maintaining ice forecasting and predictions using real-time satellite

data to track ice flows, ice packs or even icebergs.

With more than seven years’ worth of analysis compiled in its IT systems, the Environment Canada division feared an unforeseen disaster could destroy everything they’d worked for — the virtual equivalent of falling through the ice.

The manageability of that data would require sophisticated applications, but for secure storage, Beamish turned to a familiar ally.

“”If I only have a fixed dollar amount, I try to maximize the software purchase, and then whatever was left, a 100-tape jukebox will do,”” he says.

“”It would be nice to get fancier media for our storage, but money gets spent elsewhere and we keep using the tapes and buying new ones.””

He’s not the only one.

This past summer saw major milestones for both the standard digital linear tape (DLT) technology owned by Quantum, as well as the linear tape open (LTO) format created by a coalition including IBM, HP and Seagate.

The LTO camp, for example, said in July it has shipped 10 million cartridges since its format was first introduced in late 2000.

Quantum, meanwhile, retorted that at least 100 million DLT cartridges have been sold through a variety of OEMs.

The numbers point to a strong resurgence of tape, despite reports of its impending demise by several industry experts over the last five years.

According to Steve Berens, Quantum’s senior director of product marketing and strategy, the value of tape was underscored following terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Those enterprises that backed up data using tape quickly resumed their normal business activities.

“”It’s been the cornerstone of protecting data because it does take it off-site,”” he says. “”It ebbs and flows. Before 9/11, people kind of forgot about the value of that.””

Howard Hayakawa, vice-president of tape drive development at StorageTek, says many believed the market for tape would be eroded by the rise of high-capacity disks, but that hasn’t happened.

“”Tape’s death has been forecast for at least the last eight years by a number of people, and even longer than that by some real naysayers,”” he says.

“”Look at who is predicting the death, though — quite a while ago there was some optical technology firms that promoted the death of tape because they were going to be great, and there aren’t too many of those left.””

Though disk is a lot faster, most users find they don’t necessarily need high speed, says David Hill, an analyst with Boston-based Aberdeen Group.

“”For a long time people will rely upon tape,”” he says, noting the rise of “”bulk data”” like MRI test results or seismic information that is only occasionally accessed.

“”If you’re a doctor’s office and (the information) comes back in 45 seconds or a minute, so what?”” he says.

When the technology market rebounds, Berens and Hayakawa say they hope to see tape continue to expand beyond its role in mission-critical backup and into the front end of the data centre.

Though some organizations, such as Canadian Ice Services, have set up storage area networks that could facilitate the addition of more devices, Beamish says the transition to this technology will be slow overall.

“”I’ve never been able to sit anybody down and talk about data storage policy around here,”” he says. “”We bought the SAN, so we have a good backbone now to do a lot of industry-standard storage online, near-line or all that.””

Still, though, everything gets stored on tape — just in case.

In the meantime, Berens says vendors will continue to mine the entry-level market.

This is a tremendous driving factor because it is seen as a building block, particularly in the small- and medium-business space, where operations have smaller IT departments and require more manageability.

“”You can invest in a tape technology like DLT, and as long as you maintain backward compatibility in previous generations — even in a ‘read’ format — you can stay with that technology for a long period of time,”” he says.

“”There’s been some decline in tape over the last few years, but if you compare that with what the overall industry’s been doing, it’s been pretty solid,”” Hayakawa adds.

Beamish, for one, will likely be a repeat customer.

“”That jukebox I’ve invested some good money in it,”” he says. “”I’m sure it will always be here in some form or another.””

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