Are You Ready for "iTape"?

Tape is currently enjoying a renaissance in data storage. Speakers at the third Global IT Executive Summit shed light on what's ahead.

Fujifilm USA recently staged its third Global IT Executive Summit, hosting about 75 attendees representing major companies in the U.S. and abroad. The event provided perhaps the best signal-to-noise ratio of any technology event I have attended this year. In fact, only two presentations were made by vendors (not counting tape-media manufacturer Fujifilm's own introductory comments) and even those contained less self-promotion than pointed commentary on the state of tape technology and the renaissance that tape is currently enjoying.

Fred Moore, president of Horison Information Strategies, the official scorekeeper and statistician of the storage industry for the past several decades, followed my keynote on achieving storage operational efficiency. He provided a level set on storage trends that may well have delighted the tape (and solid-state drive) aficionados -- to the same degree as it probably troubled the hard disk mavens.

He noted that the disk array manufacturers were steadily losing revenue, shedding $3 billion in annual sales since 2000, and documented the consolidation that the industry has been seeing since 2008. From the standpoint of reliability, capacity, and performance, Moore observed, tape and SSD have surged in the last decade and may have established an irreversible momentum that will see them surpass disk as a preferred technology for supporting the data storage requirements of many business applications.

Although Moore took exception to my contention that overpriced arrays with bloated controller functionality and costly maintenance contracts were helping drive disk products into disfavor, he acknowledged that addressing huge data growth with costly spindles was an increasingly economically unfeasible and unrealistic endeavor. This set the stage for some truly remarkable discussions that filled the rest of the show.

James Cates, Oracle Tape Technologies, was first through the gap opened by Moore, describing the advances that were being made in media and robotics that were driving capacity and performance forward in tape platforms while driving operational costs to the bottom line. Oracle came to the event with the bragging rights to being the first to implement Fujifilm's Barium Ferrite (BaFe) coating technology on enterprise tape. The T10000C tape, announced earlier this year, sports 5TB capacity uncompressed and has positioned Oracle to compete with the popular Linear Tape Open (LTO) tape offerings of such companies as IBM and HP.

The next big advance, by 2016, will be the introduction of Advanced BaFe tapes that leverage the perpendicular magnetic properties of BaFe and will deliver a huge leap forward in tape storage capacities, exceeding 30TB per cartridge. This was good news to Rob Sims, CEO of Crossroads Systems, who sees such technology as the enabler of fully-portable, non-proprietary Network Attached Tape Archive (NATA), which could well become a fixture in both enterprise computing infrastructure and cloud services in the next five years.

Henry Newman of Instrumental, Inc. asserted that present-day archives would need such a boost in capacity, but noted that significant planning of interfaces and interconnects would also be required to achieve a balanced approach between capacity and data integrity. Specifically, Newman argued, the problems of network and server backplane bit error rates, resulting in non-recoverable data errors when migrating data between different generations of tapes as part of normal archive maintenance, needed to be addressed by planners and developers of such products.

Tape-based archive was widely touted as a "killer application" for tape by several speakers on the agenda. Jason Hick at Lawrence Berkeley Labs and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) noted that his 13 petabyte tape-based archive, growing at about 60 percent per year, was leveraging high-capacity tape already to reduce costs in that environment. He demonstrated how tape could be used not only as a passive archive of infrequently accessed data, but also as an active file store -- with a high-capacity library front-ended with a file system to deliver cost-efficient storage of Big Data at NERSC.

Both Matthew Parker, founder of Dimensional DBA, and former tape boss for cloud storage peddler, and Richard Dolewski of WTS, Inc., a disaster recovery planning consultancy, rounded out the discussion with observations about the continued efficacy of tape in data protection. Parker recounted the challenges of tape advocacy in a "cloud disk"-centric culture at, providing a compelling case for tape in the clouds that, following his presentation, saw him encircled by competing Internet service architects in attendance.

All in all, the third Global IT Executive Summit provided interesting and provocative discussion. The most re-tweeted observation was a one-liner by Rob Sims, in response to an anti-tape marketing campaign currently being waged by disk-array maker EMC, "They have a bumper sticker that says 'Tape Sucks.' I think we need one that reads 'Tape Sticks!'"

Near the end of the second day, the attendees engaged all of the speakers in an energetic Q&A at which an agenda item was set for the fourth Summit. The tape industry was challenged to develop a business case for tape technology, tape NAS, and tape archive that could be readily understood by senior management and easily conveyed by IT practitioners -- something seen as fundamental to the success of disk storage evangelism. In addition, one attendee remarked, the tape industry needs to stop contextualizing itself as old-school technology and to borrow from Fred Moore: "Tape is a new game with new rules."

Kudos to Fujifilm for hosting such an informative and entertaining event. Be on the lookout for "iTape" – coming soon to a service provider near you.

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