Taking care of tape

“If you went to the Royal Bank of Canada’s data centres and told them to switch from tape, they would laugh at you,” says David Russell, server and storage analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

Russell is referring to tape-based backup, which, while it has taken a back seat to disk and Web-based solutions in recent years, mysteriously remains a reliable medium that won’t go away anytime soon. Despite its perception as a declining technology, many organizations have made and will continue to make significant investments to their physical tape infrastructure for years to come.

“In the primary data centre, tape is still attractive because of its low cost point, cost per unit of storage, and the fact that it doesn’t have power and cooling requirements,” says Russell. “Enterprises like the idea of backing up and recovering from disk, but for $100 for an LTO-4 (Linear Tape-Open) cartridge — which gives you a terabyte and a half of data — tape is still a pretty inexpensive insurance policy.”

Lauren Whitehouse, an analyst with Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), says while two-thirds of organizations now use disk-based storage platforms at some point in the backup process, the vast majority of those organizations still incorporate tape in their storage architecture.

“Inserting disk in the backup process solves many of the immediate concerns regarding backup performance and meeting backup windows,” she says. “For recovery, the largest percentage of data restoration tends to occur in the first week or two. Therefore, many organizations have architected solutions where data resides on disk for a designated period of time and is then migrated to tape for long-term storage.”

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Russell says that while small companies and branch offices have helped drive the adoption of disk-based and “in the cloud” backup solutions, pretty much every major enterprise continues to need a cheap and reliable tape component.

“They have stringent controls and experts that have been doing this for decades. It’s a very reliable process for them.”

Philip Barnes, senior research analyst with Toronto-based IDC Canada, agrees, saying that tape’s role in deep archival backup is especially useful in the government and banking sectors.

“With some of the regulatory requirements around unmodified data — particularly in financial services — having the original, auditable records of transactions, e-mails or whatever else it might be is vital,” he says.

But with tape’s reliability also comes the need for a reliable IT department, according to Atascadero, Calif.-based data storage consultant Tom Coughlin. He says that while modern data centres are getting better managed, the increase in complexity and sophistication is having an impact on IT and the way it runs backup and recovery.

“So where you don’t have strong IT support, the use of tape and the creation of real storage hierarchies, like using tape and hard disk drives in conjunction with each other, is less likely,” he says.

To ensure your tape infrastructure continues to work smoothly, we put together a list of best practices for how enterprises can take care of the long-standing backup medium.

Think before you store tape

The first piece of advice is also the most obvious, according to Gartner’s Russell. Making sure that the tapes are in a safe place and handled properly might seem pretty basic, he said, but many companies actually fail at this stage. The longevity of the media itself, he added, is only ensured by treating tapes within the recommended specifications of moisture and vibration. “Unfortunately, we hear at least a couple of times a month some very sad stories about people who were transporting tapes in the back of their cars and have them end up melting.”

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Exposing tapes to extreme heat, submerging them underwater or accidently dropping them on cement is a sure fire way to lose your data for good, he added. Another way is by simply losing the tape altogether.

Earlier this year, the disappearance of a DaimlerChrysler Financial Services Canada Inc. data tape — which contained customer names, addresses and social insurance numbers —served as another reminder for the importance of enterprise data protection. The auto giant’s lending division said that sensitive personal information from thousands of Canadian auto customers had gone missing from a UPS carrier while in transit from Farmington Hills, Mich., to a Quebec credit agency.

In the aftermath, the fact that Chrysler never specifically said the tape was encrypted, presented some major warning signs for industry analysts at the time. “At no point has a representative from Chrysler Financial come out and say that this tape was encrypted,” James Quin, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group, said earlier this year. Without definitively saying this, Quin surmised that it probably wasn’t encrypted.

“Any media leaving the confines of a physically secure data centre should be encrypted data to ensure its privacy,” ESG’s Whitehouse said. While the tape media itself is very stable, IDC Canada’s Barnes agreed that the environment that tapes are kept in needs to be controlled — especially if that environment is a business providing outsourcing services.

Keep multiple copies

Moving at least one copy of your tapes to a secure, off-site location is also a best practice and is a key part of any business continuity and disaster recovery plan.

“You always want to have two backup copies of your data and you want to have those copies at geographically dispersed locations,” Gartner’s Russell said. “How far that geography is should really depend on the potential environmental threats you have to worry about.”

In a recent Info-Tech published best practices whitepaper, the consultancy advised that companies consider an off-site storage firm that provides fire-protected storage facilities and is located far enough away from your primary data centre. Whitehouse agreed, advising that companies look for a reputable vendor that will guarantee the proper environmental conditions and long-term security of the tape drives.

To protect against foul play in the shipment or storage of your tapes, Russell recommended that secondary copies be made immutable. “That means that even internal personnel shouldn’t be able to access it,” he said. “If the tape is offline and in a different location, it won’t be compromised.”

This practice also protects against rogue employees or disgruntled IT administrators, he added

Verify every backup

Just because you’re backing up a piece of data does not mean you will be able to recover it — which is arguably the most important aspect of data storage.

According to Russell, a dying art in tape backup is actually verifying and testing the recovery process. “You should occasionally pull up random backup tapes to see if they can be read,” he said. “We’ve talked to people that have gone for six months or more and the entire time their data wasn’t writing out properly. They were taking tapes off-site securely and handling the media properly, but the backup application failed half a year ago.”

Info-Tech warned that while most backup software will automatically do a quick “read-after-write” verification, it makes sense to use the backup software’s full-verification functionality to ensure that the data has been safely duplicated. Coughlin said companies need to make sure that their data has been verified before removing it from their primary storage device.

Don’t put off upgrades

As technology continues to evolve, tape media needs to be upgraded along with it. Organizations that want to store data for long periods of time presumably want to be able to read that data at some point as well. IDC Canada’s Barnes compares it to the tape format wars of the 1980s.

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“If you had a bunch of Betamax tapes — and we’re talking about a technology that was fairly prevalent about 25 years ago — you would have some difficultly in trying to play them now,” he said. “If you ever wanted to go back and use the tapes, you would need to have the hardware in place to play them.”

The same can be said about tape infrastructure and many analysts recommend implementing a format migration plan that will take you from one generation of tape to the next — before the data becomes impossible to read. For example, LTO tape storage technology has a two generation backwards read compatibility, according to Coughlin. “So if new LTO comes out every three or four years, you’d want to consider migrating older data to new media according to that timeframe,” he added.

According to Whitehouse, when a tape reaches the end of its useful life, companies need to remember to erase the tape’s data — by either overwriting the tape or using a magnetic field to destroy its contents — and recycle the cartridge.

To ensure that you are not keeping more tapes, data and equipment than you need, planning ahead for the future of your tapes should become part of your whole information management strategy. “What is your philosophy,” Barnes asked. “Is it to keep all your data forever?”

Check for virtualization needs

In addition to having the proper software applications to retrieve and interpret your tapes long-term, making sure your tape infrastructure will work in the increasingly virtualized data centre is also crucial. Whitehouse said that while most backup applications are compatible with server virtualization, some are not optimized for these new environments and many organizations would be best served to re-examine their current backup processes.

“Many of the organizations we’ve polled say that they do perform backup similar to how they do it in the physical world — the un-optimized way of installing a backup agent in each guest OS or virtual machine to back up,” Whitehouse said. She added that organizations should start to look at new ways to optimize the process, such as integrating with vendor tools, such as VMware Consolidated Backup (VCB).

Enterprises should also note that virtualization technology itself may be subject to its own obsolescence over time, according to Coughlin. “That means you might need to have not only the physical migration of the data, but also the physical migration of the virtual environment,” he said. If the content is going to be useful, you’ve got to save the application, the environment, and the information, he added.

“I was just talking to someone who does data centre infrastructure installations,” Coughlin said. “The company he was working with bought a new backup system but it was not capable of dealing with virtualization. They had to go back and make another investment.”

And this leads to Coughlin’s final best practice: Research before you buy.

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