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AWS Snowball Edge adds offline tape migration capabilities

With AWS Snowball Edge, users can now migrate tape libraries to the cloud, even doing so offline to save on bandwidth.

AWS is now providing offline tape migration capabilities for AWS Snowball Edge, adding another way for users to migrate on-premises data to AWS Cloud.

The new capability enables users to migrate up to 80 TB of data from physical tapes to AWS using an AWS Snowball Edge device, which provides block and S3-compatible object storage.

The new service, announced at re:Invent 2021, could help customers remove physical storage facilities and the costs associated with them, according to AWS. After migrating to AWS Snowball Edge devices, tape data is stored in the Amazon S3 Glacier Flexible Retrieval or Amazon S3 Glacier Deep Archive storage classes, where it can be accessed by backup and recovery software when needed.

When migrating data to AWS Cloud, customers have to weigh doing so online versus using a removable storage device such as AWS Snowball Edge, Jeff Bartley, principal product manager for AWS DataSync, said during a session at re:Invent.

"If you have low network capabilities and need to move large [amounts of] data, the Snow Family makes sense from a service perspective," Bartley said.

Part of the AWS Snow Family

AWS Snowball Edge is part of the AWS Snow Family, a line of physical devices with varying capacity points that are shipped to customers to migrate up to exabytes of data into and out of AWS in places where network connectivity is inconsistent, according to Kirill Davydychev, a senior storage solutions architect at AWS. Snow Family devices have onboard compute along with AWS security, monitoring and storage management, and are owned and managed by the vendor.

The devices use tamper resistant enclosures and trusted platform modules for security, which provide users with the ability to see who has used the device and how, Davydychev said. Snow devices automatically encrypt data they migrate using 256-bit encryption keys that are not stored on the device.

The Snowball Edge device is roughly the size of a suitcase, weighs less than 50 pounds and comes with some AWS capabilities. Davydychev said the Snow Family can transfer data faster offline than online, which can be important for companies doing business in places where the bandwidth is less than 5 Gbps, he said.

Moving tapes to AWS

To move tapes to AWS, users create a Virtual Tape Library (VTL) on the Snowball Edge device. It transfers the physical tapes over to the device offline. The device is shipped to an AWS data center where the tape data is transferred to its cloud. Users create a VTL on a Storage Gateway to access their data that used to reside on their tapes, according to a blog post by Jeff Barr, chief evangelist at AWS. This process is managed through AWS OpsHub for Snow Family, a UI-based tool.

Moving a company archive to the cloud is a required scenario for some, said Vinny Choinski, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, a division of TechTarget. Based on ESG research, the average size of archive data for the enterprise is 4 PB and the average retention time is 10 years, he said. Using a physical device such as Snowball Edge to transfer archive data makes sense, as a direct connection between tape libraries and the removable device will be more efficient than using a network connection.

"If you want to move it to the cloud, you can't just click upload," Choinski said. "You might not be in business still once all the data finishes uploading."

If the strategy is moving archive to the cloud, it becomes essential to move from a physical location to a provider like AWS, Choinski said. The cloud provides users archive data accessibility through the VTL, mimicking how tapes are used and what tape data looks like. The cloud also removes some of the steps in maintaining tape data and possible issues when using tapes, such as loading the tape cartridges to be read or written and physically moving them to different sites, which can introduce the possibility of human error.

Anything that improves the slow and costly process of moving archive data to the cloud can be beneficial, especially as IoT continues to make its mark, according to Fred Moore, president of Horison Information Strategies, a consultancy in Boulder, Colo. The IT industry tried to get rid of removable media like the Snow Family decades ago, but it's clearly playing an even bigger role today, he said.

Air gaps go poof

While AWS touts the benefits of moving tapes to the cloud, Moore said customers should also consider the drawbacks. Tape libraries are air-gapped, for one, a security practice that makes hacking the archive data nearly impossible, he said. It's unclear if AWS offers this as a security measure.

"The AWS cloud solution should also offer air-gapped storage as an added line of cyberdefense, and this means storing the archival data back on a tape library at the cloud service provider data centers," Moore said.

With tape, ESG's Choinski said, you have physical air gapping, removing the tape cartridges and shipping them somewhere so they can't be accessed at that time, or logical air gapping, where networks and servers are isolated. This is something the customers will have to weigh as they move data or archive to the cloud.

Air gapping aside, AWS does offer security measures such as replicating archive tape data to three different locations for data protection and redundancy, Choinski said.

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