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From Preservation to Activation: How Modern Data Archives Expose Tape Storage Inadequacies

Platina Systems
8 minutes

Tape storage has had a good run. For decades, enterprise organizations have relied on physical tapes to safely store sensitive data.

It’s easy to understand why so many large operations have opted to secure their data on tape. Tape storage has long been the most affordable data storage option for preserving data. Tape has been the default because organizations haven’t wanted to mess with something they have grown familiar with operationally. 

But is tape still a “good thing” in 2021? 

Modern Data Requirements Reveal Mounting Tape Challenges

Over the last 40 years, tape has increasingly become burdensome for many organizations. As libraries grow larger and the more people relying on it, the bigger those burdens become. One by one and day by day, they fall victim to mounting operational tape challenges. 

The reality is that this legacy approach is no longer compatible with the needs of modern enterprises. The world has moved on to the IoT, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Edge Computing. Data is now an organization’s gold - and there’s a massive amount of data to be mined. The archive market is projected to reach 6 zettabytes -  6 billion terabytes - by 2025. The explosion in the growth of data generation will also swell the amount of data being stored. (Forbes)

Today, archived data is no longer a static resource to be preserved only for posterity or backup - it serves as a valuable asset that feeds predictive machine learning models, helps analysts create intelligent projections and precise customer journeys, enables healthcare processes to become more efficient, and allows media and entertainment organizations to share content at scale and on-demand (to name only a few of the many uses cases!).

Tape storage will shortly become irrelevant as a solution for modern enterprise needs. Serial access storage mediums like tape are not a good fit for leading-edge advances in training AI models, content capturing and “Over-the-Top” (OTT) data, which often require fast, random access to large stores of unstructured data. 

CPU-intensive applications that need to pull disparate data from sites - including legacy data sitting in tape archives - require lightning-quick retrieval from tools that almost instantly find, load and extract specific information across multiple locations.

Today’s Dwindling Tape Ecosystem 

The tape ecosystem continues to crumble over the past few decades. What was once a segment with various suppliers and a healthy competition is left with two survivors grasping for relevance. 

Today, IBM is the only major player remaining in the tape library business. Dell, HP and others have abandoned this market for greener pastures elsewhere. As IBM continues to transform themselves, a minor decision by a new executive would eliminate any remaining support for this market.

The tape media community has narrowed to two players: Sony and Fujifilm, who still manufacture tape, but who have also spent a great number of the past few years embroiled in a patent dispute focused on LTO-8 tape. So much for LTO being an open standard! The resulting cross-licensing deal has led to what is effectively a monopoly on the tape media market.

The global tape market is expected to reach $6.5 billion by 2022, most of which is controlled by just a few major players that have been around for decades. We can’t expect to see a fresh, new tape service or supply company jumping in to disrupt this sputtering market.

On-Going Migration

If there’s one consistent truth we can rely on, it’s that data formats always face obsolescence. By the time organizations finish migrating data into a new format — for large libraries, this is a process that can take many months to multiple years — they find themselves to be just in time to begin migrating to a newer generation. 

Tape systems are, simply put, a migration hamster wheel from which organizations can never escape. 

LTO (Linear Tape Open) issues are explained a little further down in this article, but to highlight the issue of migration, tape is continually being upgraded with capacity improvements to keep pace with other media resulting in a new format every 2-3 years. 

With each of these new formats, compatibility is limited to reading from 2 generations prior and writing to 1 previous generation. Remaining on a format for an extended period of time, tapes and drives become harder to procure for growth and maintenance all the while new data must be written. As a result, organizations who have made the largest investments in tape are forced to expend valuable resources onto an endless tape migration project treadmill to remain within a 2 generation window. 

If, for example, an organization built their petabyte-sized archive on LTO 4, by the time they complete the project (spanning months to years), a new release has already happened. They now must migrate all of the data from LTO 4 to a newer generation, which depending on how long migration took the first time, could have been LTO 5 or 6.

For context, as of 2020, LTO is about to embark on its 9th generation with three more planned. For organizations - and especially infrastructure professionals - feeling the pain of multi-year migrations only to be faced with a newer generation right around the corner, it seems the entire process and ecosystem of tape storage is a net loss of wasted time, operation, and effort.

Day-to-day Tape Operation Frustrations 

Large tape systems are literally a collection of many moving parts, starting from the tapes and readers to the scanners, loaders and robotic arms. Just like cars or any other mechanical system, they also need active maintenance (ie., physical tape rotations) and record keeping and, of course, despite these efforts the system still will require repair. 

Depending upon how the systems are used - tapes used frequently, drives that read and write small bits of data at different throughput rates, etc., and environmental factors, the systems in real life do not age well.

Other common frustrations:

  • Access times: Unfortunately, tape systems are serial devices, so only 1 file can be accessed at any time. Need to access another file on the same tape or load a different tape? Get in line.

  • Transfer speeds: Since tape is serial, the theoretical max transfer speed of a single drive is a few Gbps. Moving a petabyte across 10Gbps links? You’re not going for a coffee, you're going on a 2 week vacation.
  • Data loss: While error correction codes are there, sometimes when tapes go into a drive they just don’t want to cooperate. and when aging tape and inadequate tape organization is a legitimate risk, as well, leaving organizations unable to comply with eDiscovery requests and data regulations like the CCPA, which can result in per-incident fines in the thousands.

  • The mysterious: There are also the random, unexpected things that seem to happen too frequently; heavy users know all too well that tapes can break, get stuck in drives or loaders, become unreadable, even somehow fall out of the loader. Operations teams would love to get those innumerable hours back. When this happens, valuable techs have to spend their time on a clumsy, unreliable and time-consuming process. 

 

Taking a few steps back, it’s clear that relying on tape storage solutions in 2021 and beyond requires a significant on-going investment in time and financial resources to simply maintain what is in place.

The reality is that organizations following this strategy are at risk of falling further and further behind because of the growing value of data. In today’s world, data has never been more valuable and it calls for more data than ever before to be stored, secured, quickly retrieved and analyzed. At PB-scale and beyond, performance, maintainability and economics of these solutions are paramount. Archives have transitioned from strictly an exercise in preservation to much more actively accessed data store for an organization’s digital assets.

While a trusted tool for decades, tape-based systems are unable to provide the lightning-fast data retrieval tasks required by today’s demands and due to the crumbling tape ecosystem, tape operations at scale are more costly than ever before.

Tape economies are plagued by lost productivity, downtime for migration and a long list of costs related to technology obsolescence. It’s time to stop applying band-aid, stop-gap solutions and turn to a modern, scalable answer.

Alternatives for the Modern Archive

Data is being captured everywhere; some created within public clouds and some outside. Now more than ever, organizations face ever-expanding archival demands where petabyte scales will be increasingly commonplace. 

In many cases, these archives are no longer just for preservation; the knowledge that the archives represent provide the lifeblood for organizations, through content they hold and/or valuable insights that emerge. Actively accessing and processing this data requires a high performance, multi-access solution that has room to scale to zettabytes and beyond. 

This foundation must be robust, scalable and agile, which is critical, especially as data gravity will bring many applications into the orbit of the archive. While tape archives are a massively weak link, their prevalence is a reflection of the lack of better alternatives. 

While cloud-based offerings can be a technically viable path away from a reliance on outdated tape systems, organizations often face unavoidable and cost prohibitive egress bandwidth charges on top of monthly storage charges. In the long term, traditional cloud-based alternatives are unsustainable models for many enterprises. 

When data is not natively generated in the cloud, it may not be a practical choice due to ingesting issues, lock-in concerns, security, privacy and compliance related concerns. Traditional enterprise offerings typically chase high IOPs and are costly and complex at these scales. Implementations require significant in-house expertise and coordination among multiple systems in an attempt to reduce costs.

Now Platina presents a new and modern alternative your organization can’t afford to overlook. With performance optimized for active archives and easy deployment and maintenance, the solution provides the lowest cost of ownership while extracting the most value from digital assets. Learn more and set up a demo today. 




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