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Addressing Common Data Backup Tape Myths

image of data tapes

Data tape cartridges have played an essential role in enterprise storage since the first days of computing. While the average computer user will never interact with a Linear Tape-Open (LTO) or Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT) cartridge, IT professionals understand the importance of reliable, long-term storage.

In our work, we frequently encounter misunderstandings about how data cartridges function — and inaccurate comparisons between modern data tapes and other storage technologies. In this article, we’ll address a few of the most common myths.

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Myth: Data Cartridges Are Prone to Failure.

It’s true that some legacy data cartridges and drives have specific engineering issues, but for the most part, tape cartridges are extraordinarily reliable, particularly when compared to hard drives, RAID arrays, and other physical storage devices. Data tapes resist physical damage, and newer formats offer low error rates (LTO-8 has a 10-19 bit error rate, which is certainly dependable enough for the vast majority of users).

...Prone to Failure

Tapes gained popularity for their reliability and security, and no other storage option compares. LTO tapes can provide secure archival storage for upwards of 30 years under controlled conditions, and many other formats hit similar numbers. However, as we’ve written in previous blogs, storage conditions play a major role in the functional lifespan of data cartridges; excessive humidity, contamination, and extreme temperatures can cut lifespan substantially.

Older tapes need to be regularly duplicated or migrated to modern formats (and that’s where Total Data Migration’s catalog ingestion service comes in). Even so, data cartridges are still the best option for long-term storage.

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Myth: Data Cartridges Are Slow and Expensive.

Legacy data tape formats were certainly slow, but the technology has improved substantially over the years. LTO-8 tapes offer a compressed storage capacity of 30 terabytes (TB), with a transfer rate of 750 megabytes per second (360MB/sec. native).

...Slow and Expensive

IBM’s TS1160 tape drive offers even faster compressed transfer speeds of up to 900MB/sec., and the company’s Linear Tape File System (LTFS) allows for fast access to stored data. That technology cuts out one of the common critiques of data cartridges.

The fastest cloud storage services can’t offer the same transfer speeds, and in a disaster, an efficient response is enormously important. Tape cartridges also allow enterprises to maintain secure control of their data, which can be a key factor during emergencies.

Data tapes are also inexpensive when compared with alternatives. While the per-gigabyte cost of hard drives has dropped substantially in recent years, tapes offer a lower total cost of ownership; they consume less electricity, they’re more reliable, and they’re easier to store at scale.

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Myth: Data Tapes Are Inferior to Cloud-Based Storage.

This is one of the most common myths we encounter. The logic seems reasonable: Since cloud backup services are fast and reliable, data tapes are obsolete.

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Unfortunately, that’s an inaccurate oversimplification. For most enterprises, cloud backups aren’t a perfect alternative to physical media — and physical storage presents some issues that cloud services can rectify. An effective backup strategy requires the full utilization of several types of storage, so while cloud services can be crucial in protecting day-to-day operations, tape cartridges offer an air-gapped failsafe during disaster recovery.

Consider some real-life examples: In recent weeks, numerous ransomware attacks have exposed flaws in IT infrastructure at several major businesses (we cover those attacks in more detail on this blog). Some of those organizations likely had cloud backups — but malicious actors were able to compromise those backups.

Data tapes allow for the creation of “golden copy" backups, ensuring that mission-critical systems can be operated when disaster (or a bad actor) strikes. Modern formats like LTO-8 offer exceptionally fast recovery times, and while your enterprise may use cloud services alongside physical media, it’s a good idea to use several different types of storage to limit your exposure.

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Myth: Data Cartridges Don’t Require Maintenance.

While data cartridges offer numerous advantages over other storage technologies, they’re physical media — and all physical media can fail. Tape drives can malfunction, leaving an enterprise without a clear plan for disaster recovery, and legacy formats are often misaligned with the needs of modern IT infrastructures.

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Any organization that relies on data tapes should take appropriate steps to safeguard the investment. That means regularly analyzing backup strategies, checking archives for usability, and upgrading to newer formats when necessary.

Total Data Migration can help your organization maintain effective physical backups. As leaders in data tape services, we leverage our experience with a massive library of tape drives to offer secure data destruction, tape migration, and catalog ingestion services for operations of all sizes. To schedule a free consultation, send us an email or call 1-800-876-3376 to speak with an expert.