Tape Storage and other Storage Types

Over the years, there have been significant advancements in data analytics and artificial intelligence. These advancements have established solid incentives for enterprises to obtain and monitor information about every measurable aspect of their businesses. Moreover, financial regulations require organizations to keep records for much more extended periods than they used to in the past. As a result, studies have shown that the amount of data being recorded by organizations increases by about 30% yearly.

Since the amount of data being stored is increasing, what about the storage media? It would be expected that as the amount of data being stored increases, the capacity of storage devices should also increase. This is precisely the case. However, the increase in the capacity of storage devices is much slower compared to the rise in the amount of data being stored. But this doesn’t pose a significant threat since much of this information won’t be accessed instantly. In situations like this, magnetic tapes are instrumental.

Tape storage has never gone away. As a matter of fact, a significant portion of the world’s data is still kept on tape. Most organizations still store relevant data on tapes,  including scientific data such as particle physics and radio astronomy, national archives, major motion pictures, banking, oil exploration, and more. Furthermore, there are still professionals trained to keep improving tape storage. Obviously, tape has been in existence for a long while; nevertheless, the technology hasn’t exhausted its usefulness and has advanced dramatically over the years.

What Is Tape Storage?

A tape drive is a device that stores computer data on magnetic tape, specifically for backup and archiving purposes. A magnetic tape is a sequential storage medium to collect, back up, and archive data. Magnetic tape is among the oldest electronic storage media. It is made of flexible plastic with one side coated with a ferromagnetic material. Initially, Tapes were open reels, but that has been substituted by cartridges and cassettes of many sizes and shapes.

Even though tape drives have been displaced as primary storage and medium, they still function perfectly when performing these tasks because of their high capacity, long durability, and low cost. In a library, the latency of the tape can be improved by robotics selection and loading the correct cartridge. With tape archiving, latency is not an issue. However, there’s no online copy for swift recovery since everything is stored for a long time.

The uniqueness of tape storage

Although tapes can not outclass modern storage devices in terms of random access, there are still industries that value magnetic tape storage.

  • Tape storage has always been more economical than other storage media, especially disks. Other storage media compensate by having increased capacities with reduced cost per bit.
  • Tape drives utilize a traditional helical span where the recordings and playback heads are in contact with the tape. Alternatively, tape drives can use linear tape technology where the playback heads do not touch the tape.
  • Also, tape drives can be rewinding or non-rewinding. A rewinding tape drive issues a rewind command at the end of each session; a non-rewinding tape doesn’t. Rewinds are done when a tape must be unmounted at the end of a session after processing a large amount of data, such as payroll. Rewinds are done by rewinding devices. On the other hand, non-rewinding devices are useful for stepwise tape backups and other operations where new files are added to the end of the previous session’s file.
  • Furthermore, tape drives differ from other storage media, such as hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs), in some ways. One is that the data is read and written on these storage media. Tapes sequentially store data, whereas HDDs and SSDs use rotating disks coupled with moving-to-seek heads, static flash memory, or similar technology to store data.

Tape drives come in different sizes and functionalities. Some tape drives are sold as standalone units or stacked in data center racks, forming tape libraries. The tapes are usually contained in sealed cassettes that can be inserted into the drive and activated.

Types Of Tape Drive

  • Linear Tape-Open (LTO)

LTP is an open-format technology jointly created by Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, and Seagate Removable Storage Solutions (now Certance LLC), in 1997. An open-format technology implies that even though the tapes and drives have different manufacturers, they will still be compatible with one another. LTO utilizes linear, multichannel, back-and-forth recording on 0.5-inch tape equipped with a magnetic servo for error modification and hardware data compression.

LTO also has a built-in electronics module that can store and retrieve cartridges’ recordings and other information. Originally, LTO technology had two variants; Accelis and Ultrium. Accelis focused on speed, while Ultrium focused on capacity, respectively. However, due has since been withdrawn due to low demand. Ultrium, the active variant, uses a single tape spool inside a cartridge. The current (ninth) generation LTO Ultrium was released in 2020 and can hold 18 TB in a standard-sized cartridge.

  • Digital Linear Tape (DLT)

DLT is the second most preferred tape judging by the number of sales. A premium version of DLT, called DLT-Standard, was developed in 1984. DLTS originates from some minicomputer tapes. DLT-S tapes offer up to 800GB per unit and transfer data at 60 MB/s.

Although people rarely buy DLT-S for a new backup or archiving operation these days, the DLT standard has a long history.

  • Digital Audio Tape (DAT)

DAT was developed in the 1980s to replace compact audio cassettes. Sony developed and owned DAT-Standard, recording a huge number of sales. Most DATs in the market were DAT-160 which offered 80GB per tape, or DAT-320, which offered 160GB per tape, at that time.

However, DAT had some downsides that caused it not to achieve its full potential. These include low capacity and a limited data transfer rate of just 16MB/s.

  • Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT)

AIT adopts helical-scan recording on 8 mm tape. AIT cassettes differ from cartridges of other tapes by having a smaller size, greater density, and slimmer tape. This allows AIT to house more tape libraries that hold more data while managing space. Due to its small size, AIT is a good option for organizations transitioning from older systems based on the Digital Data Storage standard using digital audio tape. Sony owns AIT, and they’re the only supplier of these drives.

Furthermore, AIT cassettes house a memory chip within the media cartridge to record and store information related to format and file location. This enables AIT tapes to load faster and reduces the duration of file search. Most AITs can reach 400GB capacity and transfer data at 24MB/s.

Advantages Of Tape Storage

Tape drives offer several benefits, which explains why they’re still in use. These include:

  • Reduced Cost

The tape storage hardware cost is cheaper than some storage devices, particularly SSDs. This makes tape drives a suitable choice for organizations that intend to retain a significant amount of their data. Moreover, businesses with compliance requirements that have to archive data for an extended period, such as pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, or universities, may prefer tape drive because of its cost efficiency.

  • Efficiency

Other data storage devices, such as disk storage, cloud storage, etc., are typically used for storing data that needs to be accessed quickly and regularly. Hence, these devices need to operate on a 24/7 basis to carry out regular data backups and ensure successful disaster recovery when needed. And this contributes to energy consumption in modern data centers.

On the other hand, tape storage is primarily used for data archiving due to its ability to store data offline. Tape drives operate only when data is being read or written to them. Thus, tape drives work on an as-needed basis, meaning they consume less power.

  • Security

Among the things that make tape storage an appropriate option for many organizations is its ability to protect data against ransomware or malware.

Since tape backups are stored offline, they are disconnected from the system once the backup operation is complete. Thus, if the tape cartridge is not connected to the system, attackers can not gain access to the data and corrupt it. This makes tape storage more effective than cloud storage, which operates online and is constantly exposed to external attacks.

Disadvantages of Tape Storage

There are many reasons modern organizations may choose to use other storage types instead of tape storage.

  • Low Speed

One of the significant downsides of tape storage is its low speed. Since data is sequentially written on tapes, backing up large amounts of data can be time-consuming. Restoring backed-up data also takes a long time. Consequently,  the business might face a longer downtime than expected.

  • Lengthy Access

Tape drives do not grant random access like hard drives. If you intend to restore a file that is at the end of a tape, the drive must go through the entire tape to locate the file you want. If the data is on a different cartridge, you would have to eject the cartridge and drive-search for the needed file.

Other Forms of Storage

It is no longer surprising that other storage forms have substituted tape drives as the primary storage means. Most users prefer these modern devices due to the ease with which it gets their tasks done. These storage forms are Disk drives and Cloud storage.

The disk drive is a storage device that allows a computer to read data from a disk and also write to it. Hard disk drives (HDD) are the most common form of a disk drive. The terms disk drive and hard disk drive are often used interchangeably. Other types of disk drives include optical drives, floppy drives, etc.

Cloud storage is a storage service in which data is transmitted and stored on remote storage systems. It can be monitored, maintained, backed up, and made available to users over a network, usually the internet. Also, users pay for their cloud data storage  and can purchase additional space if need be

Like any other form of technology, tape has evolved over the years. Although its position as the main backup medium has essentially been hijacked by disk and cloud storage, the tape drive is still actively used in modern organizations.

With the renaissance of tape backup, Storware has also unlocked this functionality for its solution. Starting with version 6.0, users can use the new integration with this backup destination. Get the free Trial or contact us if you are interested in a one-on-one demo.

Marcin Kubacki

text written by:

Marcin Kubacki, CSA at Storware