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LTO tape capacity shipments rose sharply in 2021

Shipped LTO capacity and media unit shipments increased in 2021. Ransomware protection and the release of LTO-9 were among the reasons for the jump, analysts said.

The LTO Program correctly predicted last year that shipped tape capacity would reverse a COVID-19 pandemic-fueled dip in 2020 and grow in 2021.

As employees headed back to the office and IT administrators continued to seek protection from ransomware, a record 148 exabytes (EB) of compressed LTO tape capacity shipped in 2021, according to the LTO Program's annual media shipment report, released Tuesday. The total marked a 40% increase over the 105 EB shipped in 2020 and easily bested the previous record of 114 EB in 2019.

"We believe that most businesses put their growth plans for the data center on hold in 2020," said Carlos Sandoval, tape offering manager at IBM, one of the three LTO Program technology provider companies along with HPE and Quantum. "These plans were reactivated in 2021, given the confidence on getting out of the pandemic around the world."

Cloud use surged early in the pandemic because of its convenience during a time when organizations largely worked from home. Many clients couldn't get in the data center to use or install tape, Sandoval said last year.

Without the pandemic, the LTO Program had expected another record year of shipments for 2020. However, last year Sandoval also said he expected the 2021 LTO tape capacity shipment report to be much better, aided by the refocus of deploying on-premises infrastructure.

Ransomware, environmental concerns fuel tape purchases

According to IDC research, shipments of tape drives, tape libraries and virtual tape libraries increased 10.5% in 2021, year over year.

Ransomware is one of the main factors for the increase in tape sales, said Phil Goodwin, research vice president at IDC.

Already a threat before the pandemic, ransomware surged in the last two years as attackers took advantage of remote workers' more vulnerable cybersecurity. Tape cartridges, though, provide an inherent air gap from online attacks, as well as immutability and isolated recovery.

We're fielding more inquiries from IT organizations, looking for ways to reduce the carbon output of their data centers, and storing so-called dark data on tape is one of them.
Phil GoodwinResearch vice president, IDC

"The additional outside opportunity for bad actors to get into corporate networks through inadequately protected work-from-home users has certainly had some impact," Goodwin said. "We're continuing to see a huge amount of activity in that area, and concern about it from IT organizations."

Goodwin also pointed to increased interest in green data centers as another reason that sales of energy-efficient tape are on the rise.

"We're fielding more inquiries from IT organizations, looking for ways to reduce the carbon output of their data centers, and storing so-called dark data on tape is one of them," Goodwin said, referring to data not generally in use.

In addition, hyperscale cloud providers are increasingly using tape, for both protection from ransomware and its energy efficiency.

Media unit shipments also increased for the first time since 2016, according to the LTO Program. About 9.1 million tape cartridges shipped in 2021, a year-over-year jump of 7%.

Chart of shipped LTO tape capacity from 2011 to 2021

Shipped LTO tape capacity usually rises from year to year as requirements for more data storage continue to grow. However, it's common for the overall tape cartridge numbers to decrease as new generations of cartridges offer more capacity. LTO-9, which started shipping in late 2021, provides 45 TB of compressed capacity and 18 TB native on one tape. LTO-8 offers 30 TB of compressed capacity and 12 TB native.

Without a pandemic, the LTO Program said it would have expected to ship more units in 2020 than in 2021.

Several factors affected the actual numbers in 2021, according to Krista Macomber, senior analyst at Evaluator Group. First, a patent dispute in 2019 impeded supply of media until it was resolved in the second half of the year. In 2020, pandemic-related labor and supply shortages and transportation delays affected shipments. Then, in 2021, the launch of LTO-9 drove demand and sales.

"LTO-9 devices can only read one generation back, so customers face a choice: continue with devices that shortly will no longer [be newly manufactured] or make the transition and the forward migration of data from an earlier media," Macomber said. "From this standpoint, you can look at LTO-9 as having a built-in trigger for moving to and purchasing new technology."

Challenges include data growth, management

The LTO roadmap extends out to the 12th generation.

The historical cadence for a new generation is every two to three years, so LTO-10 could be out in 2024, according to the LTO Program. The 10th generation is slated to offer 90 TB of compressed LTO tape capacity and 36 TB native.

Chart of LTO Program roadmap

Data growth is a continuing challenge, according to Goodwin. IDC sees data growing about 43% per year among enterprises.

"So the challenge for LTO is to continue to keep up with that data growth, with capacity of the cartridges and new generations and so forth," Goodwin said.

In addition, tape storage is relatively labor-intensive at a time when automation of storage and management is popular.

"One of the key reasons that people do want to move away from tape is its inherent manual human effort associated with managing it," Goodwin said. "[Robotic tape libraries] do play an important part, but loading tapes, unloading tapes, moving tapes to off-site vaults -- whatever is necessary -- is still human labor."

Tape will continue to play an important role in ransomware resiliency with its air gap, according to Macomber. However, Evaluator Group sees customers looking for alternatives, such as public cloud, that are easier to manage and offer faster recovery times.

"Tape's position in the market has evolved," Macomber said. "Where previously every -- or nearly every -- enterprise had tape systems in their environment, today it's more commonly in use in larger environments like service providers, or enterprises that are large enough to act like their own internal service providers, as a retention repository for archive or relatively inactive data."

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