Tape is still dead. Lets have some more tape then...

Dec 21, 2021

In September 2020, the LTO Consortium (HPE, IBM and Quantum) announced the specifications for LTO9, holding 18TB raw, and up to 45TB compressed (on a 2.5 to 1 ratio). And now manufacturers have announced that they're about to roll out LTO9 gear to the market.  

With the 18TB native capacity and data transfer rates of 400 MB per second — both of which go higher with 2.5-to-1 compression turned on — the ninth generation of the LTO format is expected to be widely used by organisations that need to store large volumes of data for long periods, with low costs and a high degree of security.

The new generation LTO9 includes the features of previous generations that make LTO tape a popular choice for long term archive.

  • Increased read/write speed: now 400MB/s raw and 1000 MB/s compressed.
  • WORM: Write Once Read Many protection for data.
  • LTFS: Linear Tape File System – the ability to present a tape as a NAS folder in the file system for drag and drop file transfers.
  • Open tape format with compatibility between hardware and media vendors.
  • LTO-9 drives offer full backward read and write compatibility with LTO-8 cartridges.

Why are we still using tape then? I thought it was dead?

LTO tape continues to be a versatile and widely used storage media for long term archive and also air-gapped storage to protect data and backups from Ransomware and disasters.

Rather than tape disappearing, we are actually witnessing its resurgence. There is no medium in the world that has greater data density and a lower cost-per-terabyte than tape. According to IDC, by 2025 the world could generate about 175 zettabytes of data. Considering that roughly 80% or more of typical data storage is made up of inactive data, it doesn't make economic sense to have large volumes of that data taking up valuable space on more expensive storage mediums, such as spinning disk or flash. The real investment is in buying a tape library, and once you have that, multiple copies of data can be made economically. And the storage requires no electricity either, so it gets a green tick, which is seen as being important in this day and age. From a reliability perspective, tape is more reliable than spinning disk and flash also.

Tape is often perceived as old fashioned, an anachronism even, and is not as heavily marketed as 'The Cloud', which is still shiny and relatively recent, and is still being heavily adopted today. But recognized or not, tape continues to work in the background, just doing its job, doing what it says on the box, safeguarding the exabytes of data we generate. The reality is that tape is not actually in competition with cloud, but rather complements it. Tape’s ability to integrate with many other technologies like the cloud, is a major benefit, and its air-gap capability puts it in a prominent position as an on-premises insurance policy against the threat of ransomware.

Today, organisations create data storage strategies that not only include data protection, but also ‘data resiliency’, which is the ability for data to 'come back from the dead' after it has been compromised. This can be achieved by having more than one copy of the data in different locations (think the 321 backup rule) with the capability of gaining access to all of the affected data in a timely manner. And tape is an important part of this strategy.

And then there is the innovation. Tape innovation goes hand-in-hand with advanced robotics and tape automation. It achieves high availability and redundancy with enterprise tape libraries supporting multiple robots in continuous uptime, creating flexibility which was not possible decades ago. Tape and tape vendors also has an innovation support structure in the industry, with many of the big the storage vendors coming to the party. And of course, the LTO Consortium has its established and lengthy LTO tape roadmap, showing commitment to LTO (Linear Tape Open) technology.

With all these capabilities, tape is a behind-the-scenes workhorse. And it still has a large part to play in securing world’s data.  

And finally, some techno-babble from Wikipedia, which is probably true (that should be Wikipedia's catchphrase).  Which also means, tape had its 70th Birthday this year.

Magnetic tape was first used to record computer data in 1951 on the UNIVAC I. The UNISERVO drive recording medium was a thin metal strip of 0.5-inch (12.7 mm) wide nickel-plated phosphor bronze. Recording density was 128 characters per inch (198 micrometre/character) on eight tracks at a linear speed of 100 in/s (2.54 m/s), yielding a data rate of 12,800 characters per second. Of the eight tracks, six were data, one was for parity, and one was a clock, or timing track. Making allowances for the empty space between tape blocks, the actual transfer rate was around 7,200 characters per second. A small reel of mylar tape provided separation from the metal tape and the read/write head.


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