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How is tape backup doing in 2019?

Industry experts say tape isn't going away and the technology is actually improving. The problem, they say, is vendors aren't talking enough about this 'old-school' backup method.

Tape backup isn't dead, but it rarely makes headlines. And when it does, it's usually when people assert how "not dead" it is.

Because the technology's been around for more than five decades, it's easy for organizations, especially new companies, to pass it over in favor of shinier storage media like disk, flash and cloud.

But, like the mainframe, you can still find tape in data centers alongside more modern technology. Storage industry experts maintain tape backup remains one of the most reliable and cheapest ways to retain data, and it's the best way to store a golden copy of data safe from malware. Tape vendors continue to improve the core technology and add services revolving around it. These aren't exactly indicators of a dead medium, so why does that notion persist?

Tape vendors, industry analysts and IT administrators offer several reasons why tape is often perceived as a dying technology, and why it keeps hanging on.

In the past, blame for the "tape is dead" falsehood had been placed on disk backup vendors with a vested interest in killing the competition or on journalists focusing their coverage on newer technology. But another opinion has emerged that places the blame on the tape backup vendors themselves: They simply aren't doing enough to educate customers about their products' benefits.

Chart showing adoption of disk, cloud and tape
Cloud is up, and disk is down, but tape -- tape never changes.

Tape is poorly advertised

"There's not enough coverage of tape in the world, and part of it is because other technologies are doing a much better job marketing," said Paul Luppino, director of product management at Iron Mountain, summing up why some people still believe tape is dying or dead.

George Crump, chief steward at analyst firm Storage Switzerland, said another reason companies don't adopt tape is many IT administrators are not familiar with it.

"You need someone on the team who has been in the industry long enough to understand the pros and cons of using a tape library," Crump said. "Generally speaking, newer companies aren't adopting tape, and the reason is they don't know about it. They don't know how it can fit into the infrastructure."

By 2005, tape had surpassed disk in reliability, with faster data rates, higher capacity, lower total cost of ownership -- that's the good news. The bad news is the tape industry has done a very poor job of promoting all these changes in the renaissance that it went through.
Fred MoorePresident, Horison Information Strategies

Crump said there's an education gap that tape vendors are not addressing. Vendors aren't proactive in explaining the benefits of tape backup or dispelling myths about its drawbacks. On a consulting job, Crump suggested to a tape company that it should make a video showing how to unbox a tape library, install it and then back up with it because, "most of the world has not seen anything like that."

"If you've never seen a tape before, it might take you all day to unbox it. That is really the tape industry's responsibility," Crump said.

Still, tape backup isn't for everyone. While tape is valuable for archiving large data stores for long-term retention, even tape advocates admit disk is better for backing up and restoring data you want to access frequently or quickly.

This was why American Family Insurance's headquarters in Madison, Wis., moved entirely off of tape and over to disk in 2017.

"Although we did have some archive-type data, the majority of the data was lower-retention," said Josiah Burke, former senior data systems backup engineer at American Family Insurance. "Tape is a potentially cheap solution, but when you're dealing with large amounts of data that you might need to call back, the cost of that just doesn't make sense."

Burke said tape simply took too long to pull data compared to disk. Because little of his organization's data needed to sit in storage for long periods of time, it was more cost-effective to eject tape from the storage infrastructure completely.

Christophe Bertrand, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), said tape is best used in situations where large amounts of data that is infrequently accessed needs to be stored for long periods of time.

"From a recoverability perspective, tape is not going to be anywhere near what you can get out of disk and, to an extent, cloud, depending on amount of data being recovered, bandwidth and so on," he said. "From [a service-level agreement] standpoint, as far as [recovery point and recovery time objectives] expectations go, tape will not meet that requirement."

Tape is dead -- to consumers

Anyone who has used a PC is familiar with the concept of a hard disk. But that's not the case with tape storage.

"If you don't work in a data center, you don't know tape," said Fred Moore, president of Horison Information Strategies, a data storage industry analyst and consulting firm.

However, Moore said the real issue is the tape industry does a poor job of self-promotion. In the past, tape backup had gained a bad reputation of being cumbersome and unreliable. But by 2005, tape had consolidated its 24 formats to two and made vast improvements to its reliability and performance.

"By 2005, tape had surpassed disk in reliability, with faster data rates, higher capacity, lower total cost of ownership -- that's the good news. The bad news is the tape industry has done a very poor job of promoting all these changes in the renaissance that it went through," Moore said.

In addition to poorly advertising its improvements, Moore said tape vendors turned inexplicably shy about publicizing their new products.

"A great example of the poor marketing in the tape industry happened in November last year. A new tape drive comes out from IBM, called the TS1160 -- 20 TB capacity, 400 MB per second data rate [compared to 160 MB to 180 MB per second for disk], and they never even made an announcement," Moore said. "This would be like Ford Motors bringing out 2019 cars and not telling anybody."

Crump said Fujifilm and Spectra Logic are the only vendors left who openly advocate for tape. IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and other vendors who have tape products concentrate more on selling disk, and even more nowadays on flash storage. Even Spectra Logic has been building out its BlackPearl and Verde disk-based network-attached storage (NAS) products.

Tape backup holds steady

According to the "Data Protection Landscape Survey" conducted by ESG in 2018, tape usage has been flat. The poll asked 70 enterprises and 30 midmarket companies in North America how much of their backup data was stored on disk, tape or cloud over a two-year period, as well as projections on how much they'll invest in those media in the next two years.

The survey showed that tape was holding steady while disk was in decline, losing ground to cloud.

"There seems to be a transfer between disk and cloud," ESG's Bertrand said. "Tape is going steady where it is because you don't tend to change something that's not broken."

Vinny Choinski, senior validation analyst at ESG, said cloud customers might not even realize their backup data is living on tape. Cloud providers and hyperscalers often use tape for their cold storage tiers. It could be obfuscated by a great interface or caching, but the underlying storage is tape.

"Cloud providers, hyperscalers, have asked vendors to package up tape libraries," Choinski said. "The high-density cloud storage that you buy might actually be stored on tape."

From a technology standpoint, tape is actually improving, while disk has reached a plateau, Moore said. He said disk has little room for more capacity or performance improvements, but tape usually doubles capacity every few years. The current tape format, LTO-8, maxes out at 12 TB of precompression capacity per cartridge, and Moore said there's a roadmap extending out to LTO-12 with 192 TB of native capacity. LTO-12 is expected within 10 years.

Better mobility than disk

Moore said tape has the lowest cost per gigabyte of all the different storage media and much lower energy cost, and Crump pointed out that its offline capabilities make it uniquely suited for safekeeping data against malware and rogue administrators.

Tape's portability is also unique to the medium, as it's much easier to move tapes around than disk drives. In a disaster recovery scenario, it is often faster to physically transport tapes containing backup data in a truck than to download multiple petabytes (PB) from a cloud.

Once again pointing to tape's offline capabilities, Luppino said Iron Mountain has seen an uptick of customers wanting to use tape backup to store golden, immutable copies of their data.

"In highly regulated industries, for audit purposes, they want a copy of the data that's unalterable -- something that's not executable and not adulterated," Luppino said. "Typically, where you'll find that is on tape."

Luppino said he's also seen a use case in customers migrating off of cloud and into tape to save money. Although there's no magic number for when businesses should transition off the cloud, Crump said it's usually when an organization has to retain more than 5 PB of data.

On the horizon: No new tape vendors, but new use cases

As an established, mature industry, there's very little room for disruption in the world of tape. Bertrand said we are unlikely to see any new players in the tape backup market, but new use cases will emerge, and existing vendors will continue to find opportunities to create value for customers around those use cases.

Spectra Logic's BlackPearl product converges tape, disk and cloud storage on one appliance. Iron Mountain offers to maintain tapes along with their accompanying operating systems and drives for customers who no longer want to deal with it but would still like to utilize it.

There's still room for tape vendors to improve and weaknesses they can shore up. Many startups logically start in the cloud, according to Crump, but as they grow, they should eventually want to move some of their infrastructure on premises. Crump said tape vendors have done a poor job educating customers about that transition, and how tape can play a role in that.

"A lot of this comes down to poor communication on the part of the tape industry as to when to make that transition out of the cloud. The cloud's a good place to start, but you don't necessarily want to stay there as your company grows," Crump said.

Crump said customers who went off of tape often never return, and fresh tape customers usually adopt the tech only because they happen to have someone on their staff old enough to remember its uses and how to implement it. Analysts and vendors have pointed out that tape's poor advertising is letting the medium slip out of customer's minds and into obscurity. In some ways, that's a fate worse than death.

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