Two Trends in Tape Storage: LTO-9 and IBM Cartridge

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The data storage industry spends a lot of time talking about hybrid cloud storage, solid-state drives, NVMe, and arrays. High-speed data access and cloud infrastructures run the storage world, at least to a casual observer. What doesn’t get nearly as much attention? Tape.

There are valid reasons for the current lack of hype about tape storage. Its access speeds are extremely slow even compared to HDDs, which aren’t close to the speeds of newer storage technologies. It must also be maintained in a safe and temperate environment, so a good location can be difficult to find. And, frankly, tape just isn’t exciting. Most commentators aren’t going to pick tape over NVMe-over-Fabrics when talking about new, improved storage infrastructures. 

Tape storage, however, still has advantages that enterprises and data centers can mine. It’s a cheap storage option for archive storage, is more economical than HDDs or SSDs, and it can last longer than hard drives. It’s also not susceptible to the security threats that plague digital storage. 

Recent developments by IBM and Fujifilm reveal that tape storage isn’t going away. In fact, major storage companies are still making investments in tape, even if they don’t often focus on it. IBM and Fujifilm partnered to develop a monstrous 580-terabyte tape cartridge and released it in late 2020. These kinds of innovations show how prevalent tape still is, and with good reason. 

The Case for Tape: Why It’s Not Going Anywhere 

We’ve already mentioned tape’s money-saving benefit: for enterprises that store enormous amounts of data, tape is seriously cheap compared to its counterparts. Tape can be particularly useful for compliance purposes: some industries, such as medical and legal, require customer data to be stored for a certain number of years. However, it also has to be stored securely — a difficult demand. Tape storage is a reliable backup method, and it won’t be hacked digitally like any software-based platform,including the cloud, could be.

Major storage companies like IBM, Quantum, and HPE are still improving the Linear Tape Open (LTO) standard; LTO-9 specifications were released just last year, and vendors are already creating products based on it. The LTO specifications increased cartridge capacity and continue to use hardware-based, 256-bit AES encryption. 

Perhaps the most prominent reason for tape storage’s current relevance is the rise of ransomware attacks: tape, with its complete lack of remote accessibility, is utterly immune to ransomware. This means that if a ransomware-as-a-service vendor steals data from a software-defined environment, and if that data is backed up with tape in a distant data center, the company won’t need to pay the ransom. This is huge for enterprises worried about ransomware attacks, a perfectly reasonable fear in the early 2020s.

Read more: Could You Be a Ransomware Target?

Tape is ideal for archive storage and backups. It certainly shouldn’t be the only backup copy of data out there; it’s time-consuming to retrieve, though LTFS, the file system for LTO, makes searching data easier. Note that though tape is useful for backup, it’s less so for recovery. But for additional remote copies that will be rarely (or never) accessed, tape is a great choice. 

Trends in Tape: IBM and Fujifilm Break Cartridge Size Record

In late 2020, IBM revealed their LTO cartridge expansion  — from 20 TB to 580 TB. IBM and Fujifilm have been working together to improve tape cartridges since 2006, and their most recent development soars in number of terabytes stored.

The partners also used a new particle, strontium ferrite, magnetic tape, which takes up less space and allows more tape to be stored in the cartridge. The tape also has an added smoother layer so that it can be read more accurately. 

IBM isn’t the only major storage vendor making strides in tape: HPE and Quantum have both recently announced LTO-9 technology in their tape lineup. This year and next, it won’t be surprising to see rising numbers of tape cartridges and drives purchased. Ransomware lurks in the shadows as a threat for all enterprises, and companies want to protect themselves. Tape storage and backup for cold and archived data is one effective way to do so.

Jenna Phipps
Jenna Phipps
Jenna Phipps is a staff writer for Enterprise Storage Forum and eSecurity Planet, where she covers data storage, cybersecurity and the top software and hardware solutions in the storage industry. She’s also written about containerization and data management. Previously, she wrote for Webopedia. Jenna has a bachelor's degree in writing and lives in middle Tennessee.

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