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To tape or not to tape - Where is data protection going? Why is it changing? Chapter two Featured

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Tape! Well, I talked about broken backup in my last post, but I didn’t mention tape as one of the reasons that backup is broken. Tape remains a form of media that has it applications. There is no way will you will hear me saying that “tape sucks” – I’d even say that any one claiming that has no idea where tape fits into the enterprise, is clueless, or at best “sucks at tape” and doesn’t know how to use it.

Tape has served us beyond its primary mission in the traditional sense of backup. At the risk of stating the obvious, tape was the target and the source of recovery; but it also became the means for data mobility and, in many cases, the transport layer for data migration. Tape offered an encapsulation for data, systems, and entire workloads that was not possible otherwise. And, beyond that, it was the destination of archived data.


As the need for speed grew, we started seeing the backup process transforming from a backup-to-tape model into a backup-to-disk-to-tape model. The introduction of virtual tape libraries (VTL) helped accelerate that transition and improved the speed of backup and restore processes significantly. Nevertheless, tape remained the ultimate target for backups, especially when that data needs to be retained for some time. When we saw the emergence of data deduplication; extended backup retention time on disk resources became a more viable solution. We saw SMB organizations starting to phase out tape as a backup target, where their retention requirement was limited to a few weeks or even a couple of months. In most cases, though, organizations that needed to retain their backup data beyond a month or two still looked at tape as the most efficient media to store that data.

I think that we can all agree that tape is the greenest of all mass storage media (I’m excluding optical due to the limited capacity of optical media). The introduction of data deduplication and massive array of idle disk (MAID) have helped extend our ability to retain data on disk resources without breaking the bank. Tape remains the best media to retain backup data for really long periods of time and, therefore, will continue to be a preferred medium for many large enterprises where regulations impose lengthy retention requirements.

While you are thinking of new ways to accomplish continuous data and system availability, VTLs offer a bridge between the past and the future. You can still run your backups the same way, accelerate backup and recovery processes, and push your data to tape for vaulting and long-term retention. This leads us to the role of tape in the future of data protection. The latest push of the Linear Tape File System (LTFS) gives this notion a whole new meaning. I’m really glad to see that happening, actually ADIC in the mid 80's commissioned famed DOS author Tim Patterson to create a DOS driver that treated the earliest block addressable tape drives from 3M (OEM'd by ADIC) as a drive D:. This was a revolutionary approach to making backup easy. No software required! It was the first software to make use of block addressable tape. Simply type "dir" and see your files, what a concept! I’m not going to go through why that didn’t make headways at that time; this would be whole blog on its own. 30 years later we are back to almost where we were. Now you can access tape systems as easily as you can access a USB drive, this should give a new life line, if not a rebirth altogether, to tape storage. I can save data in a native format to tape with complete application independence. No more need for backup applications to write to tape or recover from it. I can just dump my data there and read it at will, what a concept!

Beyond the obvious storage tiering benefit, I see tape file systems helping in two areas. First, a better and seamless integration of tape in new disk-based data protection processes such as CDP to extend the rather limited retention capability of disk-based backup and recovery products and solutions; this should bring a two dimensional, almost endless scalability to CDP applications in both capacity and time. Second, tape file systems are bringing backup and archiving applications closer by making them share the same repository and ultimately setting the stage for the unification of the two processes under one overall data protection umbrella.

To be continued…

Fadi Albatal

Fadi Albatal

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