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What’s Wrong with Tape?

Last week I briefly attended the Tape Summit at IP Expo.  Unfortunately due to other commitments during the day I was only able to join the round-table.  To be fair this was probably the part of the day I most wanted to attend – hearing everyone’s opinion generates much more interest than listening to canned presentations.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know most of the attendees around the table, however it was clear that there were representatives from the tape industry including LTO consortium members and of course our very own Chris Mellor.  A number of things struck me during the conversation.

The Tape Industry is In Denial – Yes it’s true.  The tape industry can’t understand why end users don’t want to use their products.  There are plenty of arguments around tape being cheaper, easier, having better longevity and so on.  But these don’t resonate with end users who don’t want to use tape when there are alternatives.

Tape Still Has a Place - There’s nothing wrong with tape.  It’s a well-proven, reliable long-term data storage medium that continues to evolve.  Admittedly it’s a case of evolution rather than revolution but that doesn’t matter.  Capacities and throughput continue to rise ahead of the capabilities of individual disk drives.

Usability is all Wrong – Almost all of our tape usage today is through proprietary formats.  For a non-portable medium like disk, proprietary formats don’t matter.  The common interface of NFS, Fibre Channel, CIFS or some other format makes the data accessible.  However tape is inherently a portable media format and so the layout of data on tape itself should be  self describing and independent.

Backup Software Vendors are Holding us Back – Yes, by having proprietary formats used to store data on tape that effectively represents the *same* content i.e. files – tape is losing ground to disk.  Tape requires significant effort to migrate from one media format to another.  Disk systems are much more flexible – think how easy it is to move a backup disk storage device from one place to another compared with moving the contents of a tape to a new one.

So how do we fix things?  The problem is how to correct the usability issue.  We need to be able to move data around between media (e.g. tape to tape & tape to disk) without having to use the backup or archive platform on which the data was created.  Yes, the owning platform needs to know about the change in location if it will continue to own it, but we shouldn’t be restricted to storing data on that software platform if we don’t want it there.  Part of this solution therefore means having decent standards – standards for storing backup objects and archive objects that work cross-vendor and cross-platform.  It’s something that perhaps SNIA should be doing.

We do have one independent format and that’s Linear Tape File System – LTFS.  LTFS seems like a great idea.  It creates a self-defining format for data on tape, embedding the data and the index together.  In this way, data can be read by any platform that simply scans the tape.  Using LTFS wouldn’t stop vendors storing the data within files in their own format, but it would at least give us a fighting chance at consistency.

So, end users, tape manufacturers, lobby the backup software manufacturers – some of which are the *same* company (e.g. IBM) and start creating consistent open formats for tape storage and users might start to think that tape was worthwhile and so there might be longevity in your products after all.

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