Tape's Diamond Jubilee

In the 1990s, tape fell out of favor, but on the 60th anniversary of this technology, it's finding a reversal of fortune.

Like the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, tape technology also celebrated its Diamond Jubilee in recent days. Aside from their coincidental appearance on the calendar, several parallels exist between the Queen and tape technology.

For one, the monarchy, as Anglophiles know, has been criticized over the past decade. However, the current economic woes and Parliament's response to them -- an austerity budget that produced a second dip into the dark territory of economic recession in the UK -- benefitted the Queen's popularity according to royal watchers at The Economist and elsewhere. Also contributing to favorability ratings was the News of the World phone hacking scandal, which had the effect of casting aspersions on virtually all tabloid papers, whether owned by Rupert Murdoch or not. This turn of events seemed to squelch many of the voices that had offered the harshest criticisms of the monarchy in recent times.

Coincidentally, tape technology also fell out of favor in the late 1990s. By the middle of the Aughties, it appeared that data deduplication-enabled virtual tape libraries (VTLs) were poised to administer a coup de grace to tape technology, with companies such as Data Domain (now owned by EMC) replacing automated tape libraries with VTL appliances (and with WAN-based VTL-to-VTL replication strategies for data protection) at a quickening pace.

However, much like the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the 60th Anniversary of Tape found a reversal of fortune -- for the better. A renaissance in tape technology appears to be happening as a result of the coalescence of several outside forces.

It's the Economy, Stupid

A slowing economy, combined with the rising costs of disk arrays (partly attributed to purported supply disruptions brought about by the horrendous 2011 tsunami and floods in Thailand, where disk components are manufactured), has created significant discomfort among storage buyers generally. IT hardware budgets, of which storage hardware is thought to account for between 33 and 70 percent of current spending, have been subjected to austerity measures in a growing number of financially challenged firms.

In the process, IT managers have been challenged to find ways to store more data with less hardware in the face of ever-growing capacity demand. This dynamic has stymied long-standing strategies for dealing with ever-growing and mostly unmanaged data volume by simply throwing more capacity at it year over year. That was the good news for deduplication, and, more recently, compression technologies that promise to squeeze more data into existing storage junk drawers.

These very same economic pressures have begun to underscore the business value case for tape technology. The role of tape, which in its earliest days served as a backup or archive medium as well as an active storage repository, is getting another look because of its potential in that third role: storage for active data. Even the analyst community, which was reading last rites to tape a few years ago, is changing its message.

Gartner, which issued a report in the late 1990s indicating that tape resiliency was so poor as to invalidate its use even for backups, now disavows their earlier finding. They have publicly claimed that they "don't remember" ever penning the historical claim, repeated over and over in the trade press and in disk array vendor marketing literature, that "1 in 10 tapes fail on restore."

Add to this the fact that the redoubtable tape hater of the industry, EMC, has suddenly had a change of heart regarding the technology. Last month, they added tape library products from Spectra Logic to their solution list. This time, their hearts actually seem to be in the move: reports have been received that Hopkinton is actually incenting its direct and indirect sales channels to sell Spectra Logic wares, unlike past flirtations with the technology organized around other kit vendors.

Helping to jumpstart tape, according to industry insiders such as Rob Simms of Crossroads Systems, whose company makes tape optimization technologies, are three vertical markets that have recently become power purchasers of storage technology: media and entertainment, video surveillance, and health care. He notes that classic media and entertainment players, from Hollywood studios to pre- and post-production video editing houses, "don't like big box movers (aka disk array vendors). They don't talk the same language [as the industry that has used analog and now digital tape medium for a couple of decades.]"

Simms observes that the video surveillance industry, and now just about everyone with a Web site, is singing the "digitized video archived on tape" mantra, "whether you are talking about an airport in the Midwest with 9000 surveillance cameras or a church in Southern California that is pushing more and more video to its Web site." According to Simms, tape is a natural fit for media asset management, driving down storage costs for a type of data that is already compressed and hence does not avail itself to either de-dupe or compression. "We are getting appointments with movie studios that would never have given a smaller firm the time of day before, and, in many cases, we are being listened to more readily than the big box guys."

Matt Starr, CTO for Spectra Logic, sees the same increased interest in tape technology in video markets. Spectra Logic, as reported here in the past, has enjoyed huge wins with movie production studios and broadcast video markets, providing a significant uptick in company profits. Starr observes that tape is flexible, with new technologies being added that make it appropriate for traditional roles such as backup as well as both "active" and "deep" archiving -- using different technologies ranging from media asset managers for production video shops to tape file systems for general-purpose file storage to meet the differing needs of differing file types. IBM's Linear Tape File System (LTFS), which he regards as a technology that promises to simplify the presentation of tape-based data as more conventional and humanly-accessible file system shares, is "a good start."

In addition to the traditional case for tape, from the standpoint of media reliability, capacity, and cost, another dimension of the business value of tape gaining attention in the current economy is energy cost and availability, according to spokespersons at IBM. Building on LTFS, IBM believes that tape-based platforms for storing massively scalable file sets may soon become a fixture in most medium and large enterprise data centers, in part because they consume substantially less utility power than comparably capacious disk arrays. (Links to video interviews I conducted with IBM tape experts at their just-concluded IBM Edge 2012 conference are located in the Video Resources section on the last page of this article.)

Power is becoming a larger factor in storage planning, they confirm, especially in areas of the country where more data center power is difficult to come by, or in locations where the cost of energy has spiked by about 23 percent over the past two years.

Into the Clouds

Tape archiving has even found a place in the clouds, according to Daniel Greenberg and David Kleinman of Permivault, a joint venture, cloud archive service from tape-maker FujiFilm Recording Media and long-time management service provider for health-care data, FujiFilm Medical Systems USA. Greenberg, who is director of new products for FujiFilm Recording Media, sees the pedigree of the FujiFilm Medical Systems archive service as a huge plus in surmounting the concerns of customers regarding both "clouds" and "tape."

He says that the Permivault offering builds on capabilities for which the company is already known in the health-care market. The announcement of the service, which was made at the March National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas, sent a clear message that tape-based archive was expanding from the health-care vertical into the media and entertainment and video surveillance businesses as well.

Access to Permivault is via the Crossroads Systems StrongBox appliance, a server with a small compliment of disk that front-ends either a local tape library or the cloud-based service. StrongBox provides an elegant integration of LTFS and NAS services, making the tape environment look and feel like a network file server to users. Crossroads also offers read/verify functionality on StrongBox to bolster confidence that data is machine readable once written.

In fact, Crossroads currently provides the secret sauce that realizes the potential of LTFS technology. By itself, LTFS is not a fully built Tape NAS software kit. It is a technology, Matt Starr underscores, that takes advantage of partitioned tape and provides the drivers that make "a tape drive look like a USB key with a rudimentary file system. "But it is a technology, not a solution. You need an archive or hierarchical storage management system, or a media asset manager, above it."

Your comments are welcome:

Video Resources

In June, IBM held its first annual storage-oriented conference in Orlando, FL: IBM Edge 2012. At that venue, our blog ( caught up with three managers who are driving the mission of Linear Tape File System (LTFS) at Big Blue. The following interviews will help you understand the buzz around LTFS, which has done more than even improvements in resiliency, capacity, or power economics to put tape back into the lexicon of contemporary storage planning.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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