Tape is king of the cold archive, but as data needs grow and the line between cold and active archive continues to blur, it might have to share the court with some new entrants.
Tape is a well-established archive player, being performant, energy-efficient and low in cost. But several archive alternatives such as optical disks, data etching on ceramics and DNA polymer, which share these tape characteristics and can achieve similar results, are looking to soon bring new tech to market.
Archive is becoming increasingly important, and has been for decades, according to Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting.
"IT people -- storage people -- are some of the most risk-averse people you'll ever meet," he said.
But now it turns out that being risk averse could be valuable to businesses, as IT admins have continued to oversee sprawling data storage programs, Staimer said. Analytics and AI have enabled the value of this data. But to reap that value, companies need to be able to store it and access it. For a long time, tape storage has been the answer.
Christophe BertrandAnalyst, Enterprise Strategy Group
For any archive option to share in tape's dominance, it will have to solve the problem of scale, according to Christophe Bertrand, an analyst at TechTarget's Enterprise Strategy Group.
"Whoever is going to be able to do storage at scale, meeting performance requirements as well as advanced use cases, could potentially replace the spot where tape is," he said. "But tape is not standing still."
Magnetic tape has been used in data storage since the 1950s, just before the onset of hard disk drives and about a decade before flash memory came about. Today, tape comes in two form factors -- Linear Tape-Open (LTO), and enterprise tape or TS11xx -- and is widely used in archives. Beyond its high density of up to 150 TB compressed and low costs, tape is difficult for nefarious actors to gain access to given its physical air gap, and it only consumes energy while in use.
Tape has also kept up with the times, now fully supporting object data. And it continues to prove to be adaptable, according to Matt Ninesling, senior director of tape portfolio management at Spectra Logic. Data management vendors such as Hammerspace are now extending their file systems to tape to better utilize the media as well.
Another advantage of tape is that when looking at its roadmap, the production lines won't have to change in order to produce higher densities, Bertrand said.
Tape has found a place for both cooler data such as backups and cold data such as archives, according to Rich Gadomski, head of tape evangelism for Fujifilm and a director of the Active Archive Alliance, which helps guide and implement modern active archive strategies. Once data goes cold, customers can't afford to keep it on spinning disk, which is where tape comes in.
Different spinning disks
But estimates of persistent data that needs to be stored are increasing into the tens of zettabytes by the end of the decade, Gadomski said.
To help tackle the growing archive needs, companies might want to consider alternatives.
"If what the prognosticators say is true, and we are faced with this incredible avalanche of data, it is not a bad idea to have other technologies," he said.
Optical disk drives, commonly thought of in the form of Blu-rays, are one such example. Optical disks plateaued at a set layer count, limiting density until recently. In 2022, Folio Photonics unveiled a new fluorescent film that was capable of increasing the storage per disk from 128 GB per disk to 500 GB to 1 TB per disk, or 10 TB per disk pack. Folio, which hopes to bring its new technology to market before 2026, is targeted at $5 per terabyte, which would be lower than LTO.
As Folio moves closer to a commercialization date, CEO Steve Santamaria isn't looking to replace tape outright. Instead, he's focused on specific use cases where things such as time to first byte -- the time it takes to access and retrieve the first bit of data stored -- and better random access to data are desirable. He also said hyperscalers are looking for different, cheap cold storage options.
"I think there's room for everybody," Santamaria said. "I really don't think it's a winner-take-all."
Optical disk drives aren't without issue, according to Staimer. They are faster at random reads, but slower at sequential reads. Folio has shown speeds up to 365 MBps, while LTO-9 lists speeds up to 1,770 MBps. The infrastructure for tape libraries is common, while companies would have to invest in optical, and the density is currently lacking, he said.
"Hitting 1 TB per disk gives you 10 TB in a disk pack. Tape is significantly larger," Staimer said. An LTO-9 tape drive can hold 18 TB without compression.
Through the storage glass
Glass is becoming another alternative to tape. Microsoft's Project Silica uses femtosecond lasers to write data to quartz glass and "polarization-sensitive microscopy using regular light to read," according to Microsoft.
Another company, Cerabyte, uses lasers to etch patterns into ceramic nanocoatings on glass. Ceramic is resistant to heat, moisture, corrosion, UV light, radiation and electromagnetic pulse blasts.
Ceramic also has another advantage over tape: Its high durability leads to fewer refresh cycles, according to Martin Kunze, chief marketing officer and co-founder of Cerabyte, a startup headquartered in Munich.
"Tape has limited durability and needs to be either refreshed or all migrated onto new formats," Kunze said.
This undertaking is expensive and time-consuming, he said.
Kunze added that tape is vulnerable to vertical market failure. Western Digital is the only company manufacturing the reading and writing heads for tape.
"Assume there is a decision on the board: 'We don't [want to] run this company anymore because it doesn't bring in as much revenue,'" he said. The single point of failure could leave enterprises in the lurch.
He sees another problem with tape -- it's stodgy.
"It's not sexy to work in tape," Kunze said, adding that younger generations of archive technologists are looking beyond tape and will bring innovative ideas to young, new tech.
Storage in DNA
Over the last 3.5 billion years, information has been stored in DNA, noted Murali Prahalad, president and CEO of Iridia.
"That tells you that if it's done right, under the right conditions, [DNA] is the perfected storage model," Prahalad said.
Compared with tape, DNA has advantages similar to those of ceramic in that it needs fewer refresh cycles and can withstand harsh environments, although not to the same degree as ceramic or even optical drives. Prahalad also sees DNA as an addition to the archive market rather than as a way of replacing tape outright.
Another DNA company, Biomemory, believes the data archive deluge will be so vast that it cannot be solved using current media, according to Erfane Arwani, its CEO and co-founder.
"Let's go for technologies that do not rely on electronics, but something else -- polymers," Arwani said.
Biomemory currently sells DNA storage in the form of cards, at roughly $1,000 per kilobyte, but sees the price dropping in the future.
Dragon Slayer's Staimer said DNA has a lot of potential because it is easier to replicate over copying a bunch of data to more tape drives, and it could be inexpensive over a long period of time. But performance is still an issue.
"It is very slow to read and very slow to write," Staimer said. "DNA will miss the AI boat because it takes too long to get the data out."
The market of today
As companies consider alternatives to tape, Staimer suggested they remember two things. First, that newer media types are still in the development phase, and how they'll work in production or how much they'll cost is not yet known. But, second, that every technology is at risk for replacement.
"Any technology can be superseded," Staimer said. "If you come out with a technology that matches the performance or is a lot cheaper and lasts longer, it will supersede tape."
Adam Armstrong is a TechTarget Editorial news writer covering file and block storage hardware and private clouds. He previously worked at StorageReview.com.