What if Tape was Dead?

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By Steve Mackey, VP Sales, Europe and Africa

From the stage of world history right down to our everyday lives, everyone loves a good ‘what-if…?’. Whether it’s imagining how different the world might be if a famous political figure had chosen a different career, a sporting icon had signed for a different team, or even imagining  how different your circumstances might be if you had just taken up a different job offer a few years ago or attended a different college.

So here’s my attempt at a little bit of revisionist history, aimed at some nay-sayers who fixate on tape’s future: What if….tape WAS dead?

First of all I think you need to really work out what tape is really used for in current storage strategies. The shift from tape as a backup medium to an archive medium changes the game here – IT departments that used tape for backup and now use disk might not take the death of tape so badly, but those with archiving needs? That might be a different story altogether.

If you are an organisation that creates a lot of data and needs to retain it medium-to-long term for compliance or for revenue-generating activities then the death of tape will hit you hard – primarily in the wallet but also in other ways.

Just think – if tape WAS dead then the first thing you would have to do is scope out enough disk to match your archiving needs.  In terms of straight up acquisition costs per GB we all know that tape is significantly cheaper, but what if your CFO takes a longer term TCO view and asks how the figures stack up over the next decade or even twenty years? Are you really going to show your CFO this report from the Clipper Group, which puts the TCO of Disk over a twelve-year period somewhere around 15 times higher than tape?

Then let’s imagine that this hasn’t been enough to put you off – next up comes the chat with the facilities manager who might be in for a nasty shock when his electricity bill comes in. Those tape drives that would have otherwise sat there silently minding their own business without troubling the power supply will need to be replaced with lots of hyperactive disks that simply can’t bear to sit still. How do you justify those power costs when the disks are being constantly powered but accessed irregularly? Those disks, according to that same report that so shocked your CFO, are going to potentially consume up to 238 times as much power. That’s not good news when companies are looking to cut overhead and power costs are rising.

The financial implications of replacing tape with disk don’t bear thinking about, but there are also practical reasons why disk simply isn’t a good fit. From a disaster recovery perspective tape has always been a popular medium, simply because the media itself is so portable. If you have a primary archive you may decide that your data needs safeguarding against some kind of catastrophe. Getting tapes offline, offsite and into some kind of secure storage is relatively straightforward.

With disk? Not so simple. The only alternative approach, remembering that tape isn’t an option, might be to use an online backup / archiving service. A couple of draw-backs here – first, certainly for large enterprises, these solutions are still considered a relatively unproven solution, not just from a reliability perspective, but also in terms of the potential regulatory implications of putting sensitive data ‘out in the cloud’.  Secondly, because of the imperative on these services to keep costs to a minimum, many of them currently use tape as a storage target for customers, but of course in this brave new tape-free world they can’t! So with these services re-architected around disk, providers would undoubtedly have to hike their prices massively, making it an even less attractive proposition.

It’s worth remembering the proponents of this myth about tape’s demise are disk-vendors and it’s funny that they happen to be the only ones who profit in this dystopian IT vision, gaining an unhealthy share of their customers’ wallets. (It’s also interesting to note that most of them use tape themselves in their own IT departments!)  That said, IT departments are already struggling to manage data growth cost-effectively, and as we move into the era of Big Data, tape becomes an even more indispensible storage medium. For end-user organisations already struggling to focus IT expenditures on innovation over simply ‘keeping the lights on’ the situation would look very bleak without tape.