Dancing with WORMs

Blame it on technological progress if you wish, but lately many IT managers have been looking for alternatives to tape backups to protect their data. The recent availability of disk drives offering exceptional capacity and contained cost, such as the latest 250GB units from Maxtor and Western Digital, motivates many companies to aim their data protection jobs at disk media, which grants faster backup time than tape, hence less time stolen from normal business hours.

Let's be clear: The typical role of tape drives and media, which is to provide long-term retention, remains unchallenged. However, for short-term data protection such as a daily backup after closing, tape media face competition from the faster and more pliable disk drives.

In essence (haven't we seen this before?), we are witnessing an incumbent media, the tape, being partially replaced by a more fashionable challenger, the disk drive.

The possible outcome of this trend is a somewhat diminished market demand for tape drives and media, which eventually spells fewer revenue dollars for the manufacturers, unless of course they can create a renewed interest in their product.

In fact, at least one vendor, Sony, is trying to open new market opportunities for tape drives applying WORM (write once read many) technology to its prominent line of Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT) drives.

Let's explain how. Several laws and regulations are putting more stringent demands on the way companies store and maintain historical data. For a taste of what this means, consider the Regulation 17 CFR 241 from the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), which, among other things, dictates the characteristics of a storage media containing sensitive information from stock trading activities.

Some of the SEC-required features for those media (should not allow formatting or data erasure, additional data should only be tailed at the end of existing content, etc.) seem to disqualify tapes. In fact, to comply with those SEC requirements, many companies adopt optical disks that use the compliant WORM technology for their records.

If you are wondering what this has to do with tape media, here is the link. Optical disks are more expensive and offer a much more limited capacity per single medium than tape drives, which creates a potential market opportunity for tape manufacturers: Creating WORM tape drives and media combines low cost, high capacity, and compliance in a single product, with the most stringent regulations for data recording and archiving.

That's exactly what Sony did with its AIT WORM line, creating a viable alternative to optical disks that several partners have included in their products.

While this is relatively old news, a recent announcement delivered at CA World makes available to small businesses new WORM products based on Sony StorStation autoloaders and libraries, bundled with Computer Associates International Inc.'s BrightStor Arcserve backup software. This is obviously a move that adds new value to tape drives and media and threatens to divert market shares from the slowly evolving optical disks.

To understand if your company should actually adopt WORM tapes for its electronic records, you should probably seek the advice of your company attorneys. However, according to CA and Sony, WORM-capable backup offers the same ease of use, contained cost, and reliability of regular tape solutions, plus piece of mind from challenges that litigation or audits could bring to the accuracy of your business records.

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