The End of Tape Storage as We Know It?

Arthur Cole

High-speed disk. Flash storage. Software-defined storage. If ever there was an enterprise technology undergoing dramatic change, it’s storage. So much is happening, in fact, that barely any attention is being given the fortunes of tried and true solutions that have served the enterprise for many decades.

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I’m talking about tape, of course. And while I am usually hesitant to predict the end of one technology in the face of younger rivals, I think this case is one of the exceptions. It just does not seem that tape, despite its low cost and high capacity, will remain as a viable enterprise storage alternative for much longer – not even for backup and archival purposes.

For a long while, I resisted the talk of tape’s ultimate demise. To be sure, there has been no shortage of technology pundits who have had tape in their crosshairs ever since the first disk drives rolled off the assembly line. The latest are the enterprise flash purveyors who tout the technology’s speed, low operating costs and increasingly high capacities as evidence that it will soon be the new normal. The simple fact is that with the rest of enterprise infrastructure rapidly optimizing for high-speed operations, storage has no choice but to keep up. As Pure Storage’s Scott Dietzen notes, today’s distributed network performance is measured in microseconds, which means that even the fastest disk technologies are now comparatively slower than tape was in the mid-1990s.

Storage buying patterns are already starting to reflect this reality. A quick analysis of Hewlett-Packard’s second quarter results shows rapidly increasing demand for converged systems like the 3PAR platform, while traditional tape and SAN technologies are trailing badly. The company is in the midst of a top-down review of all its businesses, and it is hard to see how the company can hope to maintain its leadership status in storage if it allows itself to be dragged down by non-performing product lines.

And as I mentioned earlier, even traditional tape-friendly applications like backup and archiving are embracing faster media. Riverbed, for example, recently added support for the Savvis Symphony Cloud Storage platform for its Whitewater storage appliance. The move is in recognition of the fact that enterprises are increasingly turning toward the cloud as a backup medium, providing speedy and secure backup architectures that offer broad replication and multi-site redundancy in the event of a significant natural disaster.

Also stacking up against tape is the fact that as the majority of storage architectures gravitate toward high-speed functionality, so too will enterprise applications. As SiliconANGLE’s Ryan Cox noted recently, trends like Big Data are already putting flash ahead of disk in terms of storage deployments, and that means database architectures are likely to flatten out over the next few years in order to provide secure, multitenant access to records – not just for the benefit of human operators but machine-to-machine applications as well. With this kind of functionality in play, both tape and disk will have a tough time justifying themselves in advanced architectures.

To be sure, there will still be tape-based storage systems chugging away in enterprises for some time to come. But new deployments have already slowed to a trickle, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which tape would emerge as a preferred solution to even higher-cost disk arrays.

Tape ruled the storage farm when capacity was king. In these days of unlimited storage in the cloud, speed and performance are the new trump cards.

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