Is tape all spooled out?

For years IT professionals have repeatedly been told that tape is dead and disk is the new storage medium of choice. But if tape is so dated, why are some pundits predicting its survival 50 years from now? Sandra Rossi checks out the old school world of tape and finds it's still holding its own in Australia's largest enterprises.

With the rapid rise of disk, pundits have been quick to talk about the demise of tape. But take a quick peek inside Australia's largest enterprises and its fair to say that tape isn't going anywhere for a while yet.

In fact, Gartner's vice president for storage, Phil Sargeant boldly predicts tape will still be around 50 years from now.

"Everybody still uses tape, they are just using it differently," Sargeant said.

He admits that tape has gone from being used for backup to being used as an archival medium.

"Larger organizations use disk as primary backup and tape is secondary, but only because tape is too slow to restore," Sargeant said.

But with information growing at such exponential rates even companies with deep pockets can't afford to have everything on disk.

"Once it has gone to tape it rarely comes back off tape; that is why most large organizations have a mix and I don't think that is likely to change," Sargeant said, adding that most small to medium businesses are still going directly to tape.

"The reality is that tape density is growing and more, not less, information is going to tape; 50 years from now it will still be used for archiving, because it is a much cheaper option than disk.

"For years people have been saying tape is dead, but it has just changed its role."

Although it is a much more expensive medium, disk is ideal for quick access to information. It is immediate, which is why its use is growing.

The total worldwide disk storage systems market grew 9.9 percent to $US5.6 billion in factory revenue in the second quarter of this year, according to IDC.

Total disk storage systems petabytes grew 59.3 percent year over year to reach 457 petabytes in the second quarter.

It's a growing business but tape is still a $US4 billion a year market.

Tape has been used in data centres for years, which is why so many large organizations such as banks and telcos are now utilizing virtual tape libraries.

Virtual tape -- or tape emulation -- combines traditional backup methodology with inexpensive disk drive technology to create a disk-based library that acts as a tape library. In concert with traditional back-up software virtual tape products write data to disk in current tape formats.

Because disk is used rather than tape, data can be backed up at channel speeds many times faster than with tape and also recovered more quickly.

With this technology, IT staff no longer need to mount, position and dismount tapes or worry about the reliability of the media.

IT executive at e-commerce and payment services vendor FirstData Corporation Todd Cushing had no illusions about his company's data storage needs lessening in the new future. Nor did he think that the company's current, tape-based storage system was the answer.

FirstData turned to virtual tape technology, replacing 74 tape silos and 1500 tape drives with seven virtual tape storage systems to back up 60Tbytes of data on nine mainframes. FirstData uses Storage Technology's Virtual Storage Manager appliances, which compete in an increasingly crowded market against products from established players such as EMC and Quantum.

"Using [virtual tape libraries] rather than tape has saved us thousands of square feet in our data centres," Cushing says.

FirstData had been doing a lot of what Cushing calls "tape stacking". In other words, it had been converting oodles of tapes from one format to a common format to replace ageing media and bring consistency to the operation. The process proved labour-intensive and was prone to errors, he says.

Cushing says FirstData is mulling over whether to use virtual tape technology for its Unix and Windows NT systems as well, which require about 12Tbytes of data backup. While these systems aren't as inefficient when it comes to tape backup, they could probably still benefit from virtual tape's reliability and speed, he says.

Quantum A/NZ managing director Craig Tamlin is passionate about tape and claims there are plenty of commentators willing to "disparage and confuse the market to sell more disk".

Tamlin has written a whitepaper dispelling many of the myths surrounding tape including claims it is too slow.

"There is an unrealistic perception that disk is fast just because it seems okay when serving up a single ERP or Web transaction; this is a light year apart from the whole-scale movement of 400-plus gigabytes of data for the purpose of making an entire copy. Tape isn't given a fighting chance," he said.

"Tape is still the most effective way of making multiple copies for the lowest possible price which is why tape storage capacity is increasing at 120 percent a year and is projected to do so for at least five years."

With Deni Connor

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