Storage tape is still sticking around

There’s an old adage about how the more things change the more they stay the same. In IT, it’s not a saying that’s quoted all that often. But in a world where technological jumps can be measured in weeks rather than years, it is remarkable that a technology invented 50 years ago is still essentially doing the same thing.

In May 1952, IBM Corp. released the Model 726 tape drive that stored a whopping 1.4MB on a 12-inch reel, using a special tape media developed by 3M Company. Fifty years later, IBM and its competitors are releasing products that are a step away from storing a terabyte of data on a single cartridge. However, according to Bob Passmore, research director of storage at Gartner Group in Boston, the old saying about things staying the same rings true for tape.

“While the subtleties of the technology have changed, in essence the basic concept behind the 50-year-old one and a new one are pretty similar. Of course, there’s been a tremendous change in terms of capacity, cost per unit of storage, speed and a huge improvement in reliability, like anything else,” he said.

Unlike its relatives storage area networks (SAN) and network-attached storage (NAS), tape is the wallflower of the storage industry: while most enterprises rely on tape, it’s rarely discussed. Kyle Foster, business unit executive of storage sales at IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont., attributed this to its widespread use and to the age of the technology, noting that things that have been around the longest are often talked about the least.

“If you read an article about automobiles, you might read about Formula One, the drivers and the exotic places they race, but not about car insurance. Everyone who drives a car has insurance, but not a lot of people talk about it or are interested in it. Tape has a lot in common with insurance – it protects your investments, and it’s not discussed a whole lot,” Foster said.

Robert Mah, enterprise product manager at Dell Canada in Toronto, agreed with Foster’s analogy.

“Tape back-up devices are an insurance policy for an organization – you can never have enough back-up for information,” Mah said. “The backbone of any organization runs on its critical data, and the way we look at tape back-up is that it’s another means to back up information and an effective way to restore data in the event of critical failure.”

One of the common complaints concerning tape is that despite the advancements over the years, it continues to be a slower process than saving onto disk. Illuminata Inc. analyst Dianne McAdam acknowledged this reality, but argued that tape does have a place in this 24 x 7 world.

“It makes sense for mission-critical data to be stored on disk. But for information that needs to be archived for long periods of time, tape makes sense,” Nashua, N.H.-based McAdam said.

Foster identified two significant reasons for enterprises to consider tape storage. The first is to protect data on hand and the second is to build a tolerance for a disaster. Tape is a reasonable alternative to disk to fulfil these storage needs because it is substantially less expensive, he said.

“All businesses have those basic requirements. The demand for storage is incredible, and our challenge is to continue to bring it to the next level,” Foster said.

Whatever the specifics of that next level might be, it is clear that tape isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. Paul Patterson, business manager for enterprise storage at Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont., said the demand for tape has not waned, although customers are looking for new and improved features.

“The key thing right now is that people want it to be fast and have a small footprint,” Patterson said.

Passmore predicts that the future of tape will involve a consolidation into the midrange and a continued deployment of robotics utilized in tape automation. He also said tape will continue to be the predominant backup and recovery media in mid- and large-sized companies.

“It’s doubtful that anyone will replace this technology anytime soon,” he said.