Is This the End for Tape?

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It's usually risky to predict the end of a technology that has served industry well for many years, but it does happen. You don't see too many steam engines around these days.

And yet there is a growing chorus of voices predicting the end of tape as a mainframe backup and even archival solution. This would effectively push tape into the dustbin of history since it's hard to imagine another computer architecture coming down the pike with the enormous data requirements of the mainframe.

But as more and more disk-based mainframe solutions hit the channel, the faster tape shrinks in the overall enterprise market.

Part of the reason is the rise of terabyte-class disk drives. When even compact models start pushing past the 3 TB mark, it's hard to justify the slowness and bulkiness of tape libraries even if the cost is lower per GB. The transition from tape to disk is also being made easier through new gateway systems from Luminex and others. These generally make it easier to set up virtual tape libraries (VTLs) and other tape-free architectures. Also note the growing number of adherents to Symantec's OpenStorage API, which allows users to mix and match various B&R protocols and file system formats to more easily scale resources.

Of course, tape shows no signs of going quietly. The latest development is the new LTO 5 format that more than doubles capacity over LTO 4 to 1.5 TB, 3 TB compressed. And with data transfer clocking in at around 280 MBps, there is some parity here with all but the most cutting edge disk technology, at least once the tape has been scrolled to the data you want. The LTO Consortium has developed a roadmap all the way to LTO 8 that would drive capacity to more than 12 TB uncompressed.

Tape also suffers from another innovation: the cloud. As more and more enterprises shift backup to third-party services, most of which utilize all-disk infrastructure due to the need to rapidly shift resources around, local tape solutions are taking a big hit. According to a recent study from Vision Solutions, the portion of businesses using tape dropped from 87 percent at the beginning of 2010 to 80 percent by August-almost a 10 percent loss in six months.

Sometimes it's hard to say goodbye to an old friend, but the fact is tape is suffering from the cold logic of the business market. Right now, tape is working against economics as new, cheaper and more flexible storage solutions rise to prominence.