When I was a kid living in a small town well past the middle of nowhere, I’d sit by the radio for hours, listening. When a song came on that I liked, my finger would slam down on the record button like a Venus flytrap snapping up a fly. The cassette would whirr and record it all. I always tried to get it perfect so I’d get the whole song without any of the announcer’s voice.
I still hate hearing an announcer start talking before a song is over.
I built up a substantial collection of songs in this way, even though I only had a few tapes to work with. And I’d fast forward and rewind my way through whatever good tunes small town radio offered me. And I’d often record over these songs to change up my mixes, which would give me these strange sound collages of half-erased data burbling beneath the music I wanted to hear.
Many of you probably had similar experiences.
People like to say that things were better in the past, but I can’t see how tape storage of music is in any way better than what we have now. Tape is tedious to navigate and doesn’t work when you record and rerecord.
In the same way, cloud storage is by now a much better option for your company. Don’t trust your data to a single strip of magnetic tape.
Tape Storage Is Still in Wide Use
It might surprise you to learn that many people are still using tape storage, not for music (although that’s a healthy hipster economy) but for data storage.
People—many people—trust tape for backing up their company’s files.
We here at TriTech are regularly called by customers to help with their tape backups. And we sift through their tape and restore their data as best we can. It’s a lengthy process and the data’s not always in the best condition, but we’re happy to help.
Sometimes the data is there and everything eventually is backed up.
Sometimes they’ve been using the same tapes for so long that, just like a rerecorded cassette with the ghosts of previous songs peering through, their tapes are corrupt. While with a cassette the effect might be charming, with your data, the effect is massive loss of information, your business’s information.
Sometimes people have been trusting the message that pops up, saying, “Data Backup Complete,” when nothing of the sort has happened. Always make sure that your data is actually being backed up! These are not uncommon situations.
Sometimes, the worst can happen. And this has happened here: a fire burned down the company’s building and their data burned with it.
It goes without saying that there’s no way to recover any data if no data has been copied to the tapes or if a fire makes it ash and smoke. If your data is corrupt, who knows what will still be there.
Tape is a risky storage solution.
So Why Do People Still Use Tape Storage?
There’s one advantage that people see when they think about tape storage: it’s cheaper. And indeed for sheer volume, tape might cost less for storing a large volume of data. It certainly did cost less before hard drives and, especially, cloud storage became viable options.
There’s a reason that IBM was proud to announce just a bit ago that they set a new record for tape storage. In their press release, IBM used some vivid imagery to give you a sense of the scale of their achievement: “To put this into perspective, 220 terabytes of data is comparable to 1.37 trillion mobile text messages or the text of 220 million books, which would require a 2,200 km bookshelf spanning from Las Vegas to Houston, Texas.”
While this cutting-edge technology is cool, people aren’t using this. They’re using market-standard products that do, in fact, give them a lot of digital storage space for the amount of physical space they occupy. Those savings come at the cost of convenience, and they’re frequently associated with overuse of tape (leading to data degradation), but those savings are real.
Tape is also, famously, much more durable in the long term. You don’t need to worry as much about jostling tapes around as you do with hard-drives. You don’t need to use energy keeping them functional, beyond keeping a storage room temperature controlled.
Which brings us to the main point: tape is good for archives, not for backups.
The Difference Between Backup and Archives
The key issue at stake here is what you’re using tape for. Tape, many people argue, is excellent for archives. But tape has many drawbacks when it’s used for backup. Most people don’t stop to think about the difference between these two terms.
Let’s go to the experts. SNIA, the Storage Networking Industry Association, provides excellent definitions:
Archive: [Data Management] A collection of data objects, perhaps with assoicated metadata, in a storage system whose primary purpose is the long-term preservation and retention of that data.
Compare that with backup:
Backup: [Data Recovery] A collection of data stored on (usually removable) non-volatile storage media for purposes of recovery in case the original copy of data is lost or becomes inaccessible; also called a backup copy.
To be useful for recovery, a backup must be made by copying the source data image when it is in a consistent state.
The first thing that jumps out at me is that SNIA categorizes archive under “data management” and backup under “data recovery.” These labels get to the heart of the matter. Archives manage data, store it safely for the long term. Backups help you recover data when something goes wrong.
- Backups are your frequently updated short-term memory. They’re used for disaster recovery.
- Archives are your periodically updated long-term memory. They’re used for preserving institutional digital documents.
Tape, of course, requires no energy to store beyond climate control and minimal moving costs. When a tape is full, you put it in storage and it’ll keep your data safe—provided it isn’t stolen or destroyed—for roughly 30 years. You can, every now and then, copy everything to tape and plunk it somewhere for safe-keeping.
This is why tape is still considered an excellent choice for archives.
However, backups need to be made on a regular basis if they’re to be useful at all for disaster recovery. Tape is an unwieldly and time-consuming choice for backups.
Moreover, storage growth is considered a primary pain point by most data managers now. Do you want to take the time to backup all your data using tape? Do you want to negotiate an ever-increasing mountain of tapes?
When the worst happens, you need your company back up and running as soon as possible.
You don’t want to be stuck paying everyone as a technician pries your data out of your tapes. You don’t want to forget the suitcase full of tapes at work, only to find they went up in smoke when you were away.
You need a distributed, quick, affordable solution.
Consider the cloud.
Tape for Archives, Cloud for Backup
Let’s think about the solution you need: distributed, quick, affordable.
Why would you need a distributed solution? One of the biggest problems with tape (and hard-drives) is that all your information is kept in one place. If your tape burns—and again we’ve seen it happen—you have zero data. End of story. If, however, you spread the risk to data centers spread out geographically, which is what the cloud is, and you make redundant copies of your data across these various data centers, which is standard, your data will be safe.
Barring I suppose some Hollywood-style cataclysm.
The cloud is pretty cool, isn’t it?
Cloud storage also is quick.
Everyone—even tape’s most ardent supporters—will tell you that tape storage takes time. How could it not? It’s physically impossible for tape to work as quickly as the cloud works. When we are called in to help with data backups and the company’s been using tape, full restoration—if it’s possible—takes days or longer. When they’ve been using cloud storage, full restoration—which will be possible—takes minutes or hours at most.
Cloud storage is also an affordable solution, particularly as technology improves. While cloud storage is already an economical choice, as our own Cirrus computing solution proves, it’s only getting more economical.
When it comes to archives you mean to keep for decades: consider tape.
When it comes to backups that keep your business secure and stable in the present: choose the cloud.