Is tape dead?

Is tape dead?

In the past it was a no-brainer. Disk was expensive, tape was cheap, and storage was not a priority. Fast-forward a decade or so and all of a sudden it's a different ball game. Disk is relatively cheap, tape technology has become more advanced and storage is a top priority. Add to the mix a healthy dose of paranoia stirred up by the tragic events of last month and a wallowing IT economy, and you have the all the makings of a first-class smack-down.

In one corner are the disk vendors, touting a performance and affordability mandate, while in the other corner are the tape stalwarts, pledging comparable performance at even lower pricepoints. All the while, Zip, Orb and optical manufacturers are brandishing chairs WWF-style, ready to jump in the ring for the ultimate prize - the customer.

Caught in the middle is the channel, which has to eke out a living on razor-thin product margins at a time when Anthony Robbins himself would struggle selling water to a thirsty man.

There are two insurmountable facts that govern storage. Simply put, the amount of data to be retained is skyrocketing while the cost per megabyte to store that data is plummeting. So if the cost of disk space is now more affordable than ever, and more and more data has to be kept available online for longer periods of time, what does the future hold for tape?

According to Oscar Bevz, channels manager for tape drive library vendor Quantum ATL, tape technology can offer just about everything disk can offer and a little more.

"The reason the tape market won't [wane] is because the technology in tape and disk is running almost parallel," claims Bevz. "The cost is still prohibitive [for disk]. Tape is still 10-100 times cheaper, and until that changes tape will continue to grow."

Bevz argues that tape has a couple of additional features that will ensure its continued adoption. Firstly, it's a removable medium, which means it can be stored offsite in a secure location. It's also difficult for a virus to corrupt a tape, whereas, as Bevz points out, if a network gets a virus you can almost bet it's going to target any disks storing files.

Furthermore, tape is a fairly tough technology, which means if it's dropped a metre from the ground there's still a good chance it will work. Disk, on the other hand, isn't so robust.

"Yesterday's tape online won't get a virus. Yesterday's disk will get a virus," says Bevz. "You can mess around with data on disk and no-one will ever know, but you can't do that with tape.

"The only day tape is going to die is when someone builds a removable disk drive that is as reliable and robust as tape."

According to Graham Schultz, sales and marketing manager of storage switch vendor Brocade, the future of tape and disk depends largely on the storage applications the technology is being used for.

While Schultz agrees that tape is attractive as a removable medium that can be stored bunker-style in the event of a disaster, he doesn't think it will be used to the same extent it is now to drive applications.

Despite increased speeds and feeds, tape could be relegated to archiving and disaster recovery, while disk is used to power data centres and financial applications.

"It would be an overstatement to say tape is dead. The way things are going [storage] will be driven by the applications of the media," says Schultz.

Although Richard Giddey, regional manager for tape automation vendor Exabyte, concedes that tape has been the first choice for simple backup and recovery purposes, he sees the future of tape in its capacity roadmap.

"Because of its cost advantage over other storage media, tape storage technology has historically been considered the only practical solution for routine backup and long-term data archiving," says Giddey.

However, with a number of vendors already boasting native Fibre Channel drives combined with single cartridge capacities of one terabyte just around the corner, Giddey believes tape will answer the scalability, reliability and performance features customers are going to require at a price that disk won't be able to match.

So is the industry likely to see a resurgence of companies using tape as an alternative to disk for more than just backup and disaster recovery? Maybe even to power applications?

Possibly, but it's a space that other storage technologies have been attempting to squeeze into for some time. Optical storage such as CD-RWs and DVDs as well as proprietary platforms such as Zip and Orb drives have been providing a middle layer that resides somewhere between the performance of disk and the capacity of tape at an even lower pricepoint.

Jeff Li, product manager for optical and proprietary storage device distributor Pioneer Computers Australia, says at the low end of the storage game it's all about convenience and price.

CD writers have become the most popular storage device, claims Li, and while the capacity isn't comparable to even Zip or Orb drives the attraction is obvious. They're relatively fast, it's a technology just about everyone can use and, let's face it, the fact that people can copy their favourite music onto CDs doesn't hurt.

Li feels that despite CD-RWs eating into the Zip and Orb markets, these two platforms are eyeing the enterprise space as real contenders to run certain applications. Li argues SMEs are even starting to use Zip and Orb drives in place of tape drives for archiving. And why not? It's four to five times cheaper than tape and files can be accessed as if the user was pulling files from their own hard drive.

Vic Madarevic, storage solutions marketing manager for disk manufacturer Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), disagrees. He claims the use of CD jukeboxes and other optical libraries are diminishing because of the availability disk offers at a price that is no longer an inhibitor.

Madarevic believes the answer to whether to choose tape, disk or optical storage lies in ease of management. The fewer moving parts and smaller footprints afforded by disk are seeing it being used more and more throughout the enterprise, regardless of whether for online applications or archiving data.

According to most industry rhetoric, the cost of managing storage is around 80 per cent of an organisation's total storage spend. With management so burdensome, Madarevic claims a number of IT-intensive verticals such as finance and banking are scaling their storage with only disk, rather than a combination of disk and tape.

It's a sentiment that rings true to Craig Davis, national sales and marketing manager of disk vendor Maxtor. He asserts that disk enables network administrators to "manage more for less cost and effort".

Davis believes that while tape will always be used for archiving, straight backup and restores are better handled using disk because the data does not have to be read sequentially. It's an opinion that leads Davis to believe disk will begin to significantly dent tape sales.

As a storage service provider, HDS spinoff hojo8 had to design a system that could handle multiple terabytes of data and be able to scale accordingly.

Brendan O'Reilly, marketing manager of hojo8, claims the company could have gone one of two ways. It could have followed the path taken by most organisations today and opted for a combination of disk storage for mission-critical data and tape storage for archiving. Instead, O'Reilly claims that after hojo8 costed its needs out on paper, an all-disk solution was preferable on both price and performance.

This was made possible, O'Reilly says, because of the technological advancements made in disk and the management capabilities of this type of storage.

"Three years ago we wouldn't have been able to do that."

Likewise, David Solsky, sales and marketing manager of specialist integrator Digital Storage, is noting the trend of companies storing more and more data on disk for both daily use and archiving.

It's not that Solsky feels that tape technology's days are numbered, it's simply a matter of having the data available for the user without having to involve a network administrator to ensure the right files are called up.

"Disk and tape will continue to coexist," says Solsky. "Even if you have all your data on disk, you're going to have to have it on tape for disaster-recovery purposes."

Although the death knell may be a long way from sounding for tape technology, it is clear the relatively affordable cost of disk space is changing the storage landscape. The answer then for the channel - and where channel companies can continue to garner sound revenues - is not necessarily which hardware or software platform they recommend to a customer, but from customising an enterprise's storage solution; maximising available data while minimising the total cost of ownership.

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