Tape Storage in the Age of Clouds

Arthur Cole

Like the deranged killer in countless teen slasher movies, tape storage keeps rising from the seemingly dead to add that last gasp of dramatic tension before the credits roll. Except that with tape, the story never seems to end.

The latest death rumor was that faster, more efficient and increasingly capacity-intensive disk solutions had finally made linear storage obsolete. In the age of cloud computing, in which throughput and responsiveness take precedence over any single device's performance or capability, tape simply could not compete.

Well, try telling that to Google. According to The Register, the company had its bacon saved following a recent Gmail outage after disk-based snapshot services propagated a number of software bugs throughout the company's back-up system. Fortunately, the company had reserved copies of archived email data on tape, which, being off-line, was not affected by the bugs. Sure, the restoration took a long time, but since all the disk-based data was corrupted, it was either tape or nothing. In other words, tape was the final stop between restoration and oblivion.

Even though cloud-based backup is all the rage, enterprises should be leery of shedding their reliance on in-house tape just yet, according to DCIG analyst Jerome M. Wendt. For one thing, the cloud is problematic at best when it comes to large-scale restoration, what with having to shuttle large amounts of data over the WAN. Cloud providers can also lose data or suddenly go out of business, leaving access in limbo for long periods of time, if not permanently. When it comes to compliance, tape has the two things that matter most: reliability and longevity.

And it's not like tape has hit the ceiling as far as research and development are concerned. Longtime solutions like Spectra Logic's BlueScale management stack are seeing a steady stream of enhancements to data reliability and petascale capability -- features the company says are needed to keep up with the 45 percent annual increase in online archiving of unstructured file data. Meanwhile, Oracle Corp. has unveiled a new StorageTek drive, the T10000C, that pushes native capacity to 5 TB with throughput of 240 MBps -- that's 30 times the capacity and 50 times the performance of leading disk solutions at only a fraction of the power and cooling cost.

Although it's easy to talk about the wide range of available enterprise solutions in terms of winners and losers, the fact is that IT is a lot more nuanced than most people realize. In the end, the decision over storage solutions is based on a broad set of factors beyond price, capacity and other basic specs.

It seems likely, then, that as data environments become more complex, the storage component at most data centers will have to see an increase in the diversity of media. Tape isn't likely to play the dominant role in this scenario, but it will remain a key element in the drive to ensure continued flexibility and reliability of critical data systems.

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