Scoop on Spectra Logic's Media Lifecycle Management

Tape issues are the result of personnel errors and processes, not of the technology itself.

Coming soon to a trade publication near you will be a more complete discussion of Spectra Logic's innovative tape media lifecycle management solution than what I am able to present in this column. My reason for writing prior to the formal announcement is simple: I like what Spectra is doing and I'm bursting at the seams to talk about it.

Without going into all the details, I can say that the Colorado-based tape automation vendor has nailed just about every one of the most commonly cited reasons for tape failures. The list of headaches is a hefty one:

  • Media errors and incomplete backups are usually first and second on the "things I hate about tape" list. Too often, these issues develop as a result of process -- rather than product -- shortcomings. Media errors usually occur because of poor tape management and reuse of media beyond the manufacturer's recommended limits.
  • Errors also occur because of misapplication of tape technology to workload: companies, hoping to cut costs, buy the wrong tape platform given the number of hours per day they intend to drive it. Enterprise tape places an air bearing between the media and read/write heads, so tape does not contact metal during operation. This is not the case with less-expensive LTO technologies. The latter is appropriate to low duty cycles of a few hours per week, while the former is good for industrial grade 24/7 applications.
  • Incomplete backups result from a different problem. Usually, administrators, ignoring their backup logs, fail to see that jobs are not completing. Whatever the cause, the wrong time to discover that your recovery data is incomplete is during a disaster.
  • Drive hangs, damaged tapes, dirty tape heads, blank tapes, overwritten tapes, and erased tapes also come up repeatedly as culprits in annual surveys. Again, most of these issues have to do with media management and tape discipline issues.

Case in point: A year or two ago, I was told about a tape solution implementation gone wrong. A government agency (if I reveal which one they would have to kill me) purchased a tape library and software. After a few weeks, someone called to complain that none of the tapes recorded by the device could be read. The customer became more exasperated when it took six weeks for the tape backup software vendor to send someone to troubleshoot the cause (it took time for the proper security clearance procedures to be completed). When the vendor’s system engineer arrived, he was escorted at gun point through the facility as he sought to discover the cause of the problem (my recommendation, by the way, for handling all storage vendors).

The problem and solution turned out to be simple: the library was loaded from top to bottom with cleaning cartridges. Some overzealous operative had slapped "Top Secret" labels over the labels on the cartridges which clearly explained that they were for tape head cleaning and should not be used to record data. For a brief period, the government had the singular distinction of enjoying the cleanest read/write heads in the history of tape.

As the above story illustrates, many tape issues are the result of personnel errors and processes, not of the technology itself. Failure to perform read/verify operations after a tape is written almost ensures that restoring from tape backup will be problematic, yet many IT administrators (and end users in the case of low-end tape) do not perform read/verify after they write their tapes -- usually because of scheduling issues. Media mismanagement, mishandling, and inappropriate storage only add to the litany of woes associated with this otherwise-robust and constantly improving storage technology.

Spectra Logic can't fix all of these issues, of course, but they will shortly be presenting a software- and services-based offering designed to provide easy-to-use management capabilities that can simplify how necessary tape management functions are administered. Their offering is worthy of your attention. Watch for it this month, when the company makes its formal announcement at a storage conference in Orlando.

Truth be told, tape remains a stalwart of most data protection strategies. It is also the least expensive and greenest medium for storing data, which probably accounts for why about 70 percent of the world's data is stored to tape. Forget what you have read from analysts -- Gartner's claim that one in ten tapes fails on restore or Forrester's suggestion that tape failures occur in one out of thirty restore attempts.

Tape technology, applied judiciously and after consideration of the volume and volatility of the data you need to back up and the restore timeframe you require for your applications and business processes, is a useful part of data defense. Spectra Logic is helping its customers improve their management processes, something that we would expect from all of the tape technology vendors today.

Your views are welcome: jtoigo@toigopartners.com.

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.