Why Tape Backup Is Experiencing a Renaissance in the Digital Era

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Read more about author Shridar Subramanian.

There’s no shortage of stories reporting the (supposedly) imminent death of tape storage. The stories always cite the drawbacks of the technology, which, granted, are not insignificant. For many small and medium businesses, tapes can be labor-intensive, requiring a manual process to change them at the beginning or end of every day. Tapes can also be misplaced or outright lost. These factors and more have given tape storage a poor reputation in today’s marketplace, and they are helping to drive the steady migration to flash storage and cloud storage.

But here’s the thing. Despite all its drawbacks, tape as a means of data storage is more relevant than ever.

Tape is like the mainframe computer, which allegedly died more than 20 years ago but is still a tried-and-true technology in many large enterprises. Tape capacity shipments are on the upswing. A recent report from the Tape Storage Council found that a record 114,079 PB of linear tape-open (LTO) tape capacity shipped in 2019. That’s about 400% more than was shipped in 2009. 

Here are five reasons why tape storage offers significant advantages over other options.

1. Tape boasts better protection against ransomware

Many of today’s data-storage technologies, such as cloud storage, can’t fully protect you against the growing threat of ransomware attacks. On the other hand, tape backup is offline, so it can’t be easily infiltrated by malware or any other kind of cyberattack. The tapes themselves are often kept at offsite locations or in storage vaults. That means tape can serve as your last line of defense. Even if ransomware thieves penetrate all your other defenses, they still won’t be able to score if all your data is safely backed up on tape. So, it’s ironic that while we become more and more connected and digitized, we rely on good old tape to give us an extra layer of protection and better secure our data against ransomware.

Tape offers other security capabilities as well, such as write-once-read-many, which means you write on it once, and it can never be overwritten or deleted, either unintentionally or by those who wish to do you harm. This capability is critical because it’s not just outside hackers who pose a threat. Sometimes insiders are the problem. If a disgruntled employee tries to delete all your data, having tape storage can completely negate that threat.

2: Tape can survive disasters

Even after all these years, backing up data on tape and sending it offsite is still a highly reliable disaster recovery method. If your office burns down or there’s a once-in-a-century flood or any other kind of natural disaster, the safest way of protecting your data is to put it on tape in a secure remote location. That’s why savvy organizations will never stop doing tape storage.

3: Tape is cost-effective

The cost of tape storage continues to decrease while its storage capacity increases. Tape remains one of the least expensive options for long-term data archiving. According to Fujifilm, tape is three to four times cheaper to use than disk for long-term storage. The leading tape backup format is LTO and, with the introduction of LTO-8 several years ago, enterprises can store up to 30TB of data compressed on a single tape.

But that’s just the beginning. In the not-too-distant future, LTO generation 12 will store up to 480TB compressed on one tape. That means tape can easily accommodate the massive data growth that almost every organization faces.

4: Tape makes insurers happy

Cyber liability insurance is a type of insurance designed to cover losses and penalties associated with a data breach or other cyberattack. But large insurance providers are getting very selective when underwriting new cyber policies. Many will only insure customers that have ironclad data-protection strategies.

That means businesses must increase their investments in data security tools and processes to prove that they are a worthwhile risk to insurance providers. Having an A-to-Z strategy that includes disk storage, cloud storage, and tape storage gives you a better risk profile in the eyes of cyber insurance providers. Need more benefits? Ask your insurance company if they will reduce your premiums since you back up to tape.

Better still, companies with an end-to-end security strategy that includes backup and recovery and storage may not even need cyber insurance. If you have three different storage media at your disposal, you can protect yourself in pretty much any potential data-loss scenario.

5: Tape lasts much longer

Data storage professionals have a saying. There are two types of hard disks: those that have failed and those that will fail. Yes, modern-day technologies like magnetic storage, flash storage, and cloud storage offer a lot in performance and flexibility. But they fall far short of tape storage when it comes to shelf life. They don’t even come close. Tape storage has an average lifespan of 30 years. Disk storage, by contrast, typically starts to fail after about five years. Right now, tape storage is the only medium that will preserve data well into the future.

Tape may be one of the oldest methods for data storage, but it remains highly relevant for backup and recovery purposes. Even though primary and secondary storage has mainly moved to disks and the cloud, tape will continue to play an essential role in the modern data center for many years to come.

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