The Changing Role of Tape in the Enterprise

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Is tape-based backup on the way out? Or is its role in the storage environment merely changing in light of new technologies?

That question has been coming up more and more in professional circles as enterprises seek to maximize their capabilities under a relentless onslaught of new data. You have those who argue that new disk-based systems provide increased capacities at relatively low costs, thanks to deduplication and other data-management techniques, and they provide faster retrieval rates than tape. On the other hand are those who tout tape's still-lower cost-per-GB advantage and that most storage environments are already optimized for tape backup.

One thing is clear: The use of tape has seen a steady decline over the past few years, and it doesn't seem as if the numbers are about to turn around anytime soon. As analyst Arun Taneja reports to Enterprise Storage Forum, it's not as if tape deployments have fallen off a cliff, but it does indicate that it is moving from a general backup solution to a more specialized long-term archiving format.

New data from Sepaton backs up that notion. According to its most recent survey, outlined here on our CTO Edge site, more than 40 percent of enterprises contacted reported that their backup times exceed 24 hours, meaning they are producing data at a faster rate than they can store it. And nearly half say they are missing recovery times and point objectives. That's probably why more than 60 percent say they will decrease the use of tape for backup applications, while more than 70 percent say they will shift more of the load to the cloud.


Most long-term storage vendors are starting to wake up to this reality. Even those heavily invested in tape solutions now offer mixed tape-and-disk platforms that come with heavy doses of dedupe and compression. Overland Storage is a prime example, having just come out with the NEO E Series package, offering twice the capacity of its previous generations and updated LTO-5 operating software as well.

Of course, backup does not have to be an either/or proposition. The Virtual Tape Library, while technically a disk solution, has proven popular because it appears as a tape device to the network, avoiding the need for a forklift upgrade. And a new generation of near-line storage devices, like Seagate's Constellation ES, are hitting the channel, providing a stopgap between online disk storage and long-term tape solutions.

The role of tape, then, is clearly changing, but it's not likely to go the way of the dinosaurs any time soon. The same technologies that are driving down the cost of disk are having the same effect on tape, so as long as read and write speeds are not of primary concern, the most cost-effective bulk storage solution will likely be tape for some time to come.