What is driving the resurgence in the use of tape storage?

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For more than a decade, vendors and IT experts proclaimed tape to be dead. However, rumors of the band’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Tape storage technology is experiencing a resurgence. This renaissance is the result of a number of factors, including improving technology and its ability to protect against cyberattacks.

New tape storage technologies include higher capacities

Although tapes have been storing data for almost as long as computers have existed, tape storage technology continues to improve.

For example, the LTO program first released its standard in 2000. LTO-1 tape had a capacity of only 100 GB native or 200 GB compressed.

In 2021, the LTO program released the ninth generation of the LTO specification. LTO-9 tapes have a native capacity of 18TB and can store up to 45TB of compressed data. Additionally, compressed tape provides read speeds of up to 1000 Mbps. Even uncompressed tape has read speeds of up to 400 Mbps. This throughput is much faster than first-generation LTO tapes, which had a maximum speed of 20 Mbps for uncompressed tape or 40 Mbps for compressed tape. However, it is still much slower than disk and flash access times.

Data growth and deletion issues

According to some estimates, the volume of data available to most organizations will double every few years. Conventional wisdom has long held that it is nearly impossible to keep pace with such rampant data growth. Thus, many organizations have adopted strict data lifecycle management policies that will automatically delete aging data and reduce storage costs.

However, purging old data can mean that an organization cannot capitalize on a long-term trend that it could have spotted if enough historical data existed. Organizations have found they can use machine learning to unlock the hidden business value of existing data.

Tape storage use of technology can be an answer. Just as cloud providers use tape storage for archives, organizations can use the massive storage capacity offered by new standards and migrate their rarely accessed data to cheaper tape.

Although tapes have been storing data for almost as long as computers have existed, tape storage technology continues to improve.

Protection against cyberattacks

The constant threat of ransomware is one of the main reasons for the recent popularity of tape storage usage.

At first, ransomware was simply designed to encrypt the data of its victims. The easiest way to recover from a ransomware attack was to restore a backup. However, ransomware authors eventually realized that backups were the only thing standing between them and the ransom. Thus, cybercriminals began to develop ransomware capable of actively attacking an organization’s backups.

Tape storage technology is largely immune to these types of attacks. The tape can serve as an isolated copy of data. In other words, an administrator can write data to a tape, eject the cartridge, and store it in a safe place. Ransomware cannot attack data on a tape that is not mounted on a drive.

In addition, the new LTO standards incorporate write-once and read-many technology. It is possible to write to a tape so that other users cannot modify this data. In the context of ransomware, an attacker cannot encrypt the contents of a tape.

Use of tape storage by cloud providers

Some experts believed that the public cloud would render tape obsolete and ultimately responsible for its death. Ironically, however, large-scale cloud providers are some of the biggest consumers of tape storage. In fact, many companies that use cloud storage don’t realize that vendors are writing some data to tape.

Cloud providers such as Microsoft and AWS offer different tiers of storage. The least expensive storage tier is usually an archival tier, which organizations use to store data they rarely access but need to retain. These cloud providers can offer archival storage at such a low cost because they store data on tape rather than online spinning disks.

Tape issues and workarounds

Despite the upsurge in the use of tapes, there are some shortcomings. First, tape is a linear medium, which means it’s not the best choice for workloads that perform random I/O. Tape tends to be fast when performing sequential reads and writes, but can be slow when it needs to locate specific data.

Tape media can survive for decades, but to achieve this longevity, users must store them in an area with the appropriate temperature and humidity levels. Additionally, the tape is removable, so administrators must ensure that security controls will prevent the theft of sensitive data.

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