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What future has tape data storage?

With the volume of data being stored doubling every 18 months, and the possibility of increased regulation in the financial sector following the recent debacle possibly tightening all areas including data retention and data availability, how best to secure data for the long term?

In our data recovery business we are seeing an increase in hard drive recovery work from disk based backup systems. “We don’t use tape anymore” being the gist of many a statement on the subject of backup strategy, “disk based systems are so much more easy to use, and recovering the data is less arduous”. This much is true, disk based storage systems can be on-line permanently, de-duplication can be used to reduce the volume of extraneous data, and down time caused by accidental file deletion or local system failure can be kept to a minimum.

Does this mean that the traditional way of backing up data, nightly runs of data to tape with maybe a copy being taken off-site, are a thing of the past. For some people they are, but we believe that reports of the death of tape backup are a tad premature.

Regulations and operational requirements mean that data must be retained and readily available, and the increase in disk based backup does meet one aspect of this requirement, the short term one. What it does not deal with is the longer term storage need.

Location, location

The disk array that is used for immediate backup is usually in the same premises as the systems being backed up, so equally vulnerable to fire, flood or criminal activity. The need for off-site storage to deal with major catastrophe should never be overlooked and hard drives really do not lend themselves to being shipped about the country, despite being reliable it is important to remember that they are still fragile. Tape is still the more reliable long term option and with capacities of over 1TB per tape, and the performance of tape drives allowing a tape to be filled within a couple of hours, in this area of data storage tape still wins hands down. In our data recovery operation we see tapes and hard drives in all sorts of conditions, and when it comes to there being physical problems tape is incredibly durable when compared with disk, tape data recovery is usually the preferable option.

Data Recovery

Can tape match up when it comes to recovering files following a data loss? Probably not in the context of short term recovery of on-line data, from a disk based archive a file can be located and accessed instantaneously. Tape is not, however, that far behind. Most modern backup applications are able to make use of tape’s fast seek operation and store enough information to find individual files quickly. So long as a catalogue is maintained the time required to recover a file from a tape need not be that long. So when a real crisis erupts and the recovery of data from the off-site archive is needed, so long as the preparatory steps have been taken the recovery process need not be that long.

What is clear is that the traditional “backup at night and work during the day” process is archaic and not suitable for the modern business and its demands. What is also clear is that “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and abandoning traditional robust long term storage methods in favour of slick, sexy and easy to implement always on-line methods is short-sighted. Why not combine the strengths of both approaches? Use on-line backup to maintain immediate data availability, ease of data recovery, and the ability to manage data and not just store it, but combine this with the long term robustness of tapes such as LTO to ensure that you never need call upon a third party such as us to dig you out of a hole.

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