Is it time to stop talking about the death of tape storage?

By Neil Thurston, Chief Technologist, Logicalis UK&I

Heritage technologies - mainframe, Unix and magnetic tape in particular – have long been a rich source for the ‘is x technology dead?’ debate. Technical pundits fill the web with head scratching over why they haven’t disappeared, or defences for their survival.

Perhaps it is worth stepping back from this kind of debate, accepting that these technologies will be around until the last client switches the lights off, and focusing instead on what keeps them going, what the alternatives offer, and how this should influence investment decisions.  

This article considers tape storage in those terms. It considers what may be driving the ‘tape is dead’ hype, and attempts to put it aside to examine the objective factors organisations should consider in deciding to retain or replace tape technology.  

What’s driving the ‘Is tape dead?’ hype?

According to a Straits Research Report, the global tape storage market was worth just under $5 billion in 2021, with a projected CAGR of 7.8% from 2022-2030.   

While the death of tape storage doesn’t appear to be imminent, it still faces the PR challenges of being a heritage technology that is nevertheless still widely used.

Both vendors and customers would generally prefer heritage technologies to disappear as new tech appears. An IT landscape in which technologies linger adds complexity, cost and risk.

The dizzying speed of IT development may also make us particularly intolerant of old technology. Compare aerospace, where the ‘old tech’ of aircraft like the DC-3 and Boeing 747 has been maintained and modernised well beyond their original expected operating lives.

Articles asking ‘is tape dead?’ are perhaps therefore partly an expression of a sensible wish for a simpler world.

It seems unlikely that tape storage could have survived so long purely because of client inertia, so it must still be delivering sufficient value for it to be worth retaining in some use cases.

That is why it is worth moving away from the ‘is tape dead?’ debate to evaluating its features objectively against the alternatives, in the context of specific business strategies and goals.  

Evaluating tape against cloud storage

For organisations without existing tape storage infrastructure, cloud is seen as offering a more flexible, cost-effective solution for traditional tape storage functions like back-up and archiving.

In selecting a cloud service, it is still important to evaluate factors like total lifetime costs, access and retrieval service levels, and cross-border data hosting compliance.

While rapid, self-service retrieval of cold data is a useful feature of many cloud services, this needs to be evaluated against how often backups are likely to be retrieved.

Some cloud services still employ tape technology in the background. This should not be a significant consideration in itself, but it brings into play some of the factors that an organisation with in-house tape storage needs to consider.

For organisations with existing tape storage infrastructure, functions like back-up and archiving can be run cheaply and efficiently, direct cost per Gb is much lower than for disk, more data can be stored in a smaller footprint, and the sunk investment may make the short to medium-term TCO more attractive than a cloud solution.

Tape offers a major security advantage in that data stored on tape is naturally air-gapped from any network for most of its life.

The main cost and risk drivers are the need for suitably skilled operations staff and effective retrieval processes, the fact that tape degrades over time, and obsolescence risks around tape drive infrastructure. The commitment of major vendors like IBM to continue to support and develop tape technology mitigates this risk.

Cloud providers are selling object-based storage capabilities as the most effective way to store and access the rapidly growing volume of unstructured data, particularly media files.

Object-based storage on disk is a relatively new technology. It offers the ability to find and access files rapidly, without the human or mechanical interventions needed with tape. Set against this, the basic technology for storing large media files on tape is mature, and, once the tape is loaded, accessing the file is fast and reliable. 

What next?

There is no single correct answer when it comes to choosing between tape and cloud storage solutions. It depends on the specific business strategy, requirements and IT topography of the individual organisation rather than the fact that tape is heritage technology. Asking questions like ‘is tape dead?’ adds nothing to the discussion.

Logicalis UK&I has extensive expertise and experience in helping our clients to make the right, objective data storage decisions for their business. To find out more, and to continue the conversation, download our eBook or visit www.uk.logicalis.com.