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Tape Storage Is Here to Stay

Nostalgia is driving the return of audio cassettes, but tape for data storage has never gone away: All the cool kids are using it, including the hyperscalers.

In fact, the biggest single users of magnetic tape storage are probably the hyperscale data centers, Tom Coughlin, president of Coughlin Associates, told EE Times in an exclusive interview. “They’re using it mostly in big tape libraries, which are still the most cost-effective way of storing data.”

He said when it comes to cost per bit, tape storage is unparalleled, especially for “cold” archive data that doesn’t need to be accessed instantaneously. It’s also valuable for creating “air gapping” to back up data off the main network to insulate it from a malware attack, as corrupted data could be quickly and easily replicated to an online cloud-based backup and make it unusable for disaster recovery and business continuity.

What’s interesting about the tape market is that the number of units aren’t growing all that much, but the amount of data being stored is growing exponentially. “The actual amount of data that’s being stored on tape is probably more than ever before,” Coughlin said.

This can be attributed in large part to not only the low cost per bit but the overall capacity per tape. The current generation, LTO-9, has a native capacity of 18 TB, he said, while the next generation coming out in early 2024 will double that. Native capacities per tape over the longer term are expected to exceed 500 TB with LTO-14. “It’s not inconceivable that someday we could see petabyte tapes,” Coughlin said.

Growing native capacity is tempered by latency. Coughlin said that it takes a little bit longer to retrieve data, but the costs are so low that a lot of “cold data” is being put on tape, especially by the hyperscale data centers, which provide customers with different tiers of storage.

In the storage/memory hierarchy, tape sits below hard drives, which have contributed to innovation in tape technology, Coughlin said, including increased density. “A lot of the magnetic innovations that are in tape were originally used in hard-disk drives.”

Today’s magnetic tapes have error-correction capabilities, Coughlin said, and they have much lower error rates than spinning disks. And while the typical lifespan of a hard drive is about five years, a magnetic tape cartridge stored under the right conditions is probably going be good for at least 30 years, if not 50. “It’s a very inexpensive way of storing the data that isn’t being accessed all the time.”

Coughlin said that means the main challenge is going to be whether the format will eventually be obsolete when it comes time to retrieve the information. “Eventually, you lose the capability of reading the old data.”


Tape storage isn’t just for archives and backups

Aside from hyperscalers storing cold data, other common users of tape include media and entertainment companies, Coughlin said. Another use case is air gapping to create backups that aren’t connected to the network, thereby shielding them from malware and other attacks.

Züs is one of the vendors that offer tape as air-gapped backup through its private cloud. In an exclusive interview with EE Times, CEO and founder Saswata Basu said tape is an efficient tool for archiving, and data stored on it can be encrypted. There’s even an option to distribute tapes across vendors and locations, he said, which you can select with Züs’s platform.

Basu said this flexibility allows customers to meet regulatory and compliance obligations in which geographic criteria influence where data must be stored. But if you want to read the data quickly, tape probably isn’t the best medium, he said. “It’s a question of how you want to design your business uptime.”

Tapes deliver a great bang for the buck, and Basu doesn’t see them disappearing, just as SSDs won’t replace hard drives—these three layers will continue to grow because data is, too, he said, and there’s no single technology that can keep up. Züs has a focus on making sure there aren’t too many copies of data out there to enable sustainability.

Both redundancy and sustainability are appealing characteristics of magnetic tape storage. Rich Gadomski, head of tape evangelism at Fujifilm Recording Media USA, said 9/11 exposed the need for continuous data protection. Although tape isn’t a great solution for quick failover, the need for air gapping as part of a cybersecurity strategy created new opportunities for tape. “Tape has always been portable, very easy to remove from the network and secure offsite,” Gadomski said in an exclusive interview with EE Times.

Aside from their longevity and low total cost of ownership, he added, tape also has the lowest energy consumption, a cost that IT departments and data centers are trying to reduce. The overall footprint of tape is significantly lower than hard drives from raw materials to production, energy usage and ultimate disposal. “Energy carbon concerns are evolving right now,” Gadomski said.” Almost every single company is starting to issue ESG goals and initiatives.”

Fujifilm is the leading manufacturer of LTO media worldwide, and the tape business falls under the umbrella of the company’s materials division. Thanks to innovations in hard drives, there’s plenty of opportunities for tape to improve its aerial density. “We have a tremendous ability to increase aerial density for tape,” Gadomski said. Hard drives have a trillion bits per square inch, but tape is only at 3,000 billion. “There’s a lot of headroom for tape in terms of aerial density.”

Barium ferrite is now the default magnetic particle in LTO tape sold by companies like IBM, while epsilon ferrite is being looked at as the material that will enable higher capacities with a petabyte on a single cartridge.

Because of low cost per bit, low power consumption and low capacity per cartridge, magnetic tape is a de facto standard now in the media and entertainment space because content on an LTO tape can be easily moved around from various post-production departments, Gadomski said. “It’s like a giant USB stick. It’s fully interchangeable.”


AI, compliance drive tape use

Another significant customer of tape is the oil and gas sector, as is the financial sector, according to IBM storage tape evangelist Shawn Brume. “The oil and gas industry has lived on tape since time immemorial. They store all the seismic data on LTO tapes.”

In an exclusive interview with EE Times, he said that artificial intelligence is also driving the use of tape because there is no AI without “IA” —information archives. “You absolutely have to retain data so those AI systems can learn and mature and continue.”

Brume said some of the data that’s generated by the internet of things is ephemeral, but increasingly, it needs to be kept so it can be used for machine learning for applications like autonomous driving.

Retention requirements are also driving tape storage use, he said, and old data may be used later for AI learning or analysis. “When they talk about big datasets, a lot of times they’re talking about 100 TB.”

Those big datasets need to be stored somewhere that’s reliable, is extremely inexpensive and has long durability, Brume said.

As the data grows, the footprint of tape systems is shrinking as other storage devices like servers with hard drives are. Brume said that three years ago, 9 petabytes of tape storage would require 15 square feet to house 12 tape drives. Now, 14 drives can fit into the same space with twice as many cartridges. “The industry is always innovating and moving forward to provide just what we see in data centers: higher density and lower energy consumption,” he said.

Exponential data growth is synonymous with hyperscale data centers and the big cloud providers, but it’s not just larger players who understand the value of tape to handle growing data storage needs, Natalie Kremer, Overland-Tandberg’s global product and channel marketing manager, told EE Times in an exclusive interview. “It’s also small and mid-sized customers who definitely know about the advantages of tape, and they are all facing the same problem at the moment: data explosion.”

She said the more cost-sensitive companies are looking to save money by not putting all data on primary storage, and many applications work well with tape, not just traditional backup and archiving.

Regulatory and compliance obligations affect small and mid-sized companies just as much as they do enterprises, Kremer said, such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Medical environments are also driving data-retention requirements, she said, such as patient X-rays and other health information that must be stored for as long as a decade. “Tape comes into play because it’s affordable and easily scalable.”


Tape scales well with explosive data growth

While the initial outlay for a tape library can be a significant capital cost, it is easy to expand. “It’s arguably a big-ticket item in terms of your IT infrastructure, but you’re going to recoup that pretty quickly,” Kremer said. Customers can also mix and match tape systems, so LTO-9 can still be used while adopting LTO-10.

For cost-sensitive small and mid-sized companies, the low energy consumption of tape storage is appealing, Kremer added. “The energy consumption of a hard drive during its lifetime is 92% higher than the power consumption of tape for the same life cycle.” This has become especially important in Europe, where energy costs have risen dramatically due to the war in Ukraine.

She said that security concerns initially put some projects on hold, but since Q3 of last year, Quantum, Qualstar, Overland-Tandberg and other major players like IBM have seen exploding demand to the point where it’s challenging to keep up.

Kremer said fancy primary storage solutions have their place, and they’re necessary for high-speed applications, but it makes no sense to use them to store cold data.

IBM’s Brume believes tape is probably the “sexiest product” around because it’s the only one remaining that is electromechanical. “It has a mechanical movement that you physically can hear and that you know is happening.”


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