An off-site tape storage tutorial: Tape backup and recovery best practices

Tape still fills the role of media for choice for off-site vaulting, but organizations have other options such as the cloud and replication for securing data for disaster recovery.

By now it's clear that tape isn't dead and won't be any time soon, although it is clearly ceding a lot of use for data backup, data archiving and disaster recovery (DR) to disk- and cloud-based technologies.

However, tape still has value for storing safe copies of data off-site. Tape storage systems are portable, space- and power-efficient, and have a long shelf life. On the other hand, there are faster ways to restore data. And we've seen that sending tape off-site isn't always secure. So, is it still a good idea to use tape as your off-site storage medium with other options such as data deduplication, data replication and the cloud becoming mainstream?

In this tutorial on off-site tape storage, learn about the best way to store and recover your tape storage, off-site tape storage best practices, tape vaulting, tape backup alternatives and options like cloud backup.


Wayne Tolliver, systems manager for university communications at Ohio State University, said sending tapes off-site still gives him peace of mind. Tolliver leans heavily on tape for backup and archiving and pointed out, "Disk does not [store] off-site well. If your building blows up, your disk goes with it."

Tolliver sends all backup tapes to vaults on the OSU campus in case of emergency. He said he hasn't had to have a restore from those tapes since 2003, but that process went smoothly. Now he tests every month or so to make sure he can recover if necessary.

"The last time I recovered a system from tape, I had to recover a Windows 2003 Server that became inoperable after a botched hardware upgrade," he said. "Since the data resided on an external enterprise storage system, we only needed to recover the system state of the Windows Server."

Tolliver said he reformatted the boot volume, reinstalled Windows Server and Symantec Corp. Backup Exec 9.x, restored the Backup Exec configuration and catalog, and restored from tape to overwrite the temporary operating system. "A system restart followed, and after a few adjustments the server was back to normal," he said. "The process was surprisingly straightforward and trouble-free."

But not everybody sees it that way. Rail car management services firm TTX Co. bought Data Domain deduplication appliances two years ago to retire its tape library, partly because of the cost and hassles of managing 20,000 tapes off-site. TTX director of infrastructure Rob Zelinka said it cost approximately $6,000 per month to off-site with Iron Mountain, and the company needed employees dedicated to manage the tapes and respond in case of an outage.

"Tape is an old technology and expensive technology," Zelinka said. "It may be the cheapest way of archiving on the surface, but operationally, it's expensive. It also requires human intervention. There's a lot that goes into it."

Editor's Tip: For more information about off-site tape storage recovery, read about how off-site vaulting is an essential part of any disaster recovery strategy.


All disaster recovery plans involving tape must make sure backup tapes are protected, and you can recover your data fast enough to get your company back up and running.

If your recovery point objective (RPO) is 24 hours and you back up every day, you're still at risk if you only send tapes off-site once a week because a disaster could cost you a week's worth of data. If that would cost your company a great deal of money, you might want to send your tapes off-site daily. This means not waiting until the tapes are full before sending them off.

When sending tapes off-site, also keep a copy of all that data in-house. The in-house copy is for quick access and recovery while the off-site copy is used for disaster recovery. Today, many companies perform disk-based backups for onsite use and ship tapes off-site.

Another consideration is how far you should send backup tapes off-site. The short answer is: Tapes should be kept at a safe distance from any possible disruption. For example, if your company is in earthquake or hurricane regions, keep them in a geographic area that is not likely to be hit by the same disaster as your main site.

As with all parts of a disaster recovery plan, you should document all details of your off-site vaulting. These details include system preparation, restoration steps and testing required to resume normal operations after restores.

Editor's Tip: For more information about tape and DR, listen to this podcast to learn about the role of tape in disaster recovery.


Off-site tape vaulting services, such as Iron Mountain Off-site Tape Vaulting service, collect tapes, store them in optimal conditions and provide insurance against loss or media damage. The services are available for data centers or remote sites. The tape vaulting service should also provide you with a workflow, audit trail and online tracking. They can also help you develop a disaster recovery plan.

However, these services can be expensive -- especially if you want to be able to restore rapidly in case of an outage. And they're not immune to losing data.

Companies without compliance regulations can save money by handling off-site vaulting themselves. If you want to go that way, make sure you pick a secure place where tapes don't get damaged or exposed to extreme heat or humidity that will make them impossible to recover from.

OSU's Tolliver said because his department's data isn't subject to compliance regulations, he uses vaults on various parts of campus to store tapes. These vaults are built with reinforced steel and are waterproof. He said it is always a good idea to test periodically to make sure you can recover your tapes with your current infrastructure.

"We test the ability to recover large data sets and individual files from our current system about once a month," he said. "When people get hurt is when they don't monitor the backup system and assume it is running. Or they don't do any restores and find themselves doing their first restore after a huge crash. Then sometimes you learn something you didn't know, like your backup integrity was not good."

Editor's Tip: Learn more about the importance of backup and recovery testing in this article on testing your backups.


Cloud backup is increasingly talked about as a disaster recovery solution. Under this scenario, backups are replicated off-site rather than trucked off-site on tape. These cloud backup services are frequently offered by the same companies that handle off-site tape vaulting. Under the cloud model, the online backup provider usually provides the hardware and companies access data over the Internet or a private connection. These can save hardware costs up front although the customers often must still purchase backup software.

But companies exploring the cloud should not overlook bandwidth costs. The size of the pipe determines how fast data can be backed up and restored, so companies with low RPOs will have to fork over a lot of money for bandwidth. This may work for larger organizations but is probably not ideal for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

Other companies use their storage arrays to replicate data off-site. For instance, TTX uses EMC RecoverPoint to replicate between its primary data center and disaster recovery site. SAN replication incurs higher hardware and software costs, but lets companies manage their disaster recovery as part of their data backup process.

Another option is a hybrid approach, consisting of in-house appliances working with cloud storage. One offering from Simply Continuous includes a Data Domain appliance at the customer site, replicating deduplicated data to the Simply Continuous cloud.

As with tape vaulting, you have to weigh several important factors with these alternative methods -- such as your RPO, recovery time objective (RTO), cost and security concerns. When determining cost, you must figure in the price of media, hardware, staff, and tape pickup and delivery.

Editor's Tip: For more about alternatives to tape like cloud backup, read our tutorial on evaluating cloud data backup services.

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