• June 8, 2016

Call It a Comeback: Magnetic Tape May Replace Disk Storage

Are the days of disk storage numbered?

It’s been nearly 65 years since magnetic tape was first used to record computer data. Thirty years after that pivotal moment, many predicted the demise of tape after it was displaced by the disk drive—first introduced in 1956 as a 5-megabyte unit that weighed over a ton and had to be moved with a forklift. That behemoth evolved into the primary data workhorse of modern computing.

Strange, then, that tape is experiencing a resurgence of sorts. As data loads mount, the low costs and durability of tape storage heighten its utility, especially in sectors where solid and reliable data audit trails are critical. In fact, disk storage may actually meet its demise before tape does. As they get better and cheaper, flash memory arrays are eating away at disk storage installations. Technologies such as “Big Data Flash,” or flash storage boxes that plug directly into a data center’s server racks, may be the disk coup de grâce.

The reality is that the competitive potential for disk storage is limited. Disks have high cooling, energy, and rack space demands. And the hurdles to making them bigger, cheaper, and faster have simply become too steep.

Is Tape the Big Data Storage Solution?

In this era of data as strategic asset, enterprises are continuously accumulating massive volumes of the stuff. The latest analytics tools are transforming old and little used data into resource wells for mining new insights. Add to this relatively new sources of rarely used data—such as surveillance video—that must be retained.

Enter tape and its quiet renaissance. Breakthrough technologies have minimized many of its drawbacks, such as low storage densities, latency, and inflexibility. Linear Tape File System (LTFS) and Linear Tape Open (LTO) technologies, for example, allow tape to be read as a typical drive on a network. FujiFilm recently developed a high-density tape that exploits the characteristics of magnetic barium ferrite (BaFe) particles. With BaFe technology, tape can reach capacities of 220 terabytes of uncompressed data in a standard cartridge. That’s 88 times more capacity than conventional metal particle tape.

Tape shines in circumstances where demands for long-term data preservation and cost efficiencies at scale are critical. According to a report by the Enterprise Strategy Group, for organizations with large-scale data retention requirements, tape yields a 577 percent return on investment over 10 years compared to disk systems. That’s why some predict future data centers will feature storage strategies combining solid-state arrays with tape storage—all wrapped in the cloud.

Or Are Tape’s Days Truly Numbered?

Yet not everyone is sold on the long-term utility of tape. The advent of cloud storage might finally do tape in, despite the technological advancements in the medium. Though tape is roughly a quarter the cost of cloud-based services on a per-terabyte basis, tape has additional associated costs that must be factored in. These include library maintenance, offsite storage, and retrieval and cartridge maintenance costs. As advancing solid-state storage technologies continue to drive capacity upward and prices down, both disk and tape might succumb to the same knock-out blow.

But don’t count on it. The benefits of tape are more likely to make it a prime candidate for a comeback.

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