Not dead yet, but when will you get rid of tape?

Do you have any more tapes you want to get rid of?

People have predicted the ending of tape as a storage medium since the first rotating storage drums were made by wrapping recording tape around modified washing machine drums. Too cumbersome and too error prone, tape has survived because people use it for archiving and off-site DR storage. It has always been the storage backstop for all the other things that can go wrong – from human error to combinations of calamities that are stranger than fiction.

But tape itself has been a big problem. It is a byzantine technology with impressive data fast transfer rates, but is saddled by cumbersome management that requires many touch points where things can go wrong. Restoring from multiple tapes is time consuming and unnerving, but considered normal. Contrast that with using dedupe technology that can access and restore  data much more quickly.  The main problem with dedupe is it’s cost. The most popular disk-based dedupe systems are not necessarily cheap. The other problem is that many customers still use tape with dedupe for DR purposes. Used this way, tape it is less intrusive, but it still is a pain.

Disk-based dedupe has taken a big bite out of tape’s business, but yet tape has continued limping along like an unkillable zombie. Now with cloud backup looking like it could take even more out of tape’s market, is tape going to finally keel over?

Tape is tired


Putting tape backups on less expensive virtual tape cloud storage could look like an obvious solution, but like all things in storage, initial impressions are usually misleading. While cloud storage can be made to look like a big disk or tape drive in the sky, it is much slower than the old frenemy tape. The difference is most pronounced when you want it to be most transparent – during restores. Technologies for data reduction, such as deduplication and compression help, but the fastest restores from the cloud will use technologies like thin restores that were developed by StorSimple. Why restore data that you probably won’t need again? Just leave it in the cloud.

But getting back to tape, the cloud industry is making enormous investments in service offerings, including storage services, which will continue to be improved and expanded.  The cloud service providers are not stupid. They want your data so they can get your computing business when you are ready to start doing that.

Tape technology vendors do not have the marketing muscle to protect their install base, regardless of how entrenched those customers may appear. The fact is, only the largest IT shops have the resources to “do tape” well. Everybody else struggles with the stuff and will happy to jettison it as soon as they can.

So will tape disappear completely if most of the market goes away? Probably not, for starters cloud storage service providers will probably use a lot of tape, and large customers that know how to make it work will continue to want it.

My guess is that tape will follow the path of mainframe technologies into the mostly invisible corners of the technology industry where vendors are few and margins are high. Tape won’t die, it will only seem like it did.


  1. We’ve recently seen organizations that were storing big unstructured data on tape – video and image data, for example – realize they could monetize these nearly dormant archives, if only the assets were easily accessible online. The keys to reaping value from this data were disk based “live” archives that improve on tape’s accessibility, latency, while getting close to the extreme low power and costs of tape.

    Another hidden cost of tape is the typical customer practice of creating and managing multiple copies of data on tape – (two or three of them) – to provide better protection against tape media induced corruption or data loss. Such an inefficiency when it’s now possible to do that with disk based systems such as optimized object storage that provide a single highly-durable tier of disk, optimized for petabytes of big unstructured data, and protected with technologies such as erasure coding. This has the further advantage in scale-out architectures of eliminating the data migration problem across generations of tape (LTO5, LTO6, etc).

  2. Great points made Marc. Tape does keep limping along. The economics of it seem to shrink as cloud providers offer cost reduction via consolidation.

    Some corner of the data center will continue to quote emphatically that, in fact, I’m not dead yet. I think I’ll go for a walk…