Disk Hasn’t Killed Tape Yet

For years, articles have predicted the death of tape storage. Virtual tape libraries (VTLs) and other disk-based backup strategies have been held up as more efficient, faster and so on. The rise of deduplication has only added to the chorus by making it possible to pack around 20 times more backup data onto disk.

Certainly, tape has lost a lot of ground to disk, particularly at the lower end of the market, and as a repository for recent backup data. But like a tenacious tenant who refuses to be evicted from an area earmarked for redevelopment, tape is alive and kicking. And for long-term backup retention and archiving, tape appears to be holding its own — especially among large enterprises.

This was brought home recently by the PR campaigns launched by Quantum (NYSE: QTM) and Spectra Logic for their latest tape offerings. PR agencies and vendors expending effort to develop, manufacture and market brand new tape libraries? They wouldn’t be doing it if they couldn’t turn a profit with these products. And they can.

How are tape sales? IDC references several studies. Tape overall is down, although the slide is mainly at the lower end. Robert Amatruda, a tape analyst for IDC, said that the market for tape automation products below 100 tape cartridges would suffer most. Another IDC study on Asia-Pacific sales from last year showed automated tape libraries to be up 15 percent for the year, while tape drives fell 19 percent. Cheryl Ganesan-Lim, an IDC analyst, noted that disk storage allows better recovery speeds, thus making it suitable for Tier 1 and Tier 2 storage. Tape, on the other hand, is better for deep archiving of rarely accessed data. She expects tape library sales to rise slightly over the next five years.

So tape is down in lower-end, smaller-scale and more immediate data recovery categories, but it is largely holding its own at the high end and archiving. It looks like tape’s death isn’t imminent.

Why Tape Hangs On

So why hasn’t tape quietly faded away? Molly Rector, vice president of marketing and product management at Spectra Logic, pointed to the one fact that disk vendors can’t dispute: Tape is much less expensive. She agreed with the IDC view that tape’s role is to function as part of a tiered infrastructure in which it is used for archiving.

“We are seeing growth in sales in our tape products,” said Rector.

Accordingly, the company just rolled out its latest and greatest. The Spectra Logic T-Finity enterprise tape library comes with multiple, redundant robots and can scale to 45 petabytes (180PB by combining four boxes into a unified library complex). Rector boasts that this offers the highest storage density available today — 72 TB per square foot — and it scales to more than 30,000 slots in one library. In terms of power efficiency, she reckons it destroys the competition. One slide indicated the T-Finity toasts the IBM TS3500 and the Sun STK SL8500 on watts per TB and overall heat dissipation.

“The T-Finity uses a third to half of the power of its closest competitors per unit of data stored,” said Rector.

The T-Finity comes with all of the enterprise bells and whistles you would expect, such as encryption and key management. It begins shipping in December, and pricing starts a little above $200,000.

As an indicator of growing respect for Spectra Logic among enterprises, Rector said the company already provides the tape libraries for 7 of the top 10 supercomputing sites in the world. As such, the company is focusing on the Federal government, broadcast/media/entertainment and supercomputing/HPC markets. Beta customers for the T-Finity include NASA Ames and Argonne National Lab.

She reported that 70 percent of customers are encrypting data, as it is now easy to do so. What if the CEO makes some request to find a Word document he deleted a year ago? According to Rector, it would take two minutes to find a specific file. In addition, the system verifies that data was actually written correctly, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of finding that an old tape is blank.

“Older tape systems had problems, but today’s libraries don’t. Tape is as reliable as disk if you go with latest systems.”

— Molly Rector

Needless to say, Rector has confidence in the future of tape.

“While the low end is shrinking, the mid and upper ranges of the market are either flat or growing a little — and tape still represents a $3.6 billion sector,” said Rector.

She admitted that disk makes more sense in the small office/branch office setting. But she also pointed out that many of the companies that use disk for that purpose back up from disk to a large tape library once the data is centralized.

What about all those stories of tapes breaking and the general unreliability of tape? Rector agreed that older systems had plenty of problems in this regard. But she accused disk vendors of painting unfair comparisons between old tape systems and brand new disk setups.

“Older tape systems had problems, but today’s libraries don’t,” said Rector. “Tape is as reliable as disk if you go with latest systems.”

Article courtesy of Server Watch

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Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications, including eSecurity Planet and CIO Insight. He is also the editor-in-chief of an international engineering magazine.

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