AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Tape’s last legs

AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Tape’s last legs

I’m not inclined to declare something dead just because it’s been around a long time. (I hope no one does that to me). I have defended tape as a backup medium, pointing out to colleagues that whatever else can be said about it, tape works. Moreover, large companies have racks and boxes full of tapes in climate-controlled storage, so they have to keep tape drives to read those archives. To do otherwise would be foolish.

At present, moving from tape to another medium looks like more trouble than it’s worth. But tally up the money your customer spends on tape cartridges.

Vendors seem bent on driving blank tape prices to $US100 each and standalone drive prices to $5000 each. It’s ludicrous. The price of everything else IT buys is falling.

The trendy solution is to use hard drives for backup, but I can’t get excited about that idea. Whatever you use for back-up is going to be manhandled. Hard drives are fragile compared to tape. Raw drives may be cheap, but the hot-pluggable shells in which they rest can double the cost. If you extract the drives from their shells to store them, the exposed circuit board can easily be damaged. One wrong move with a drive and your data is toast.

Recently, I took a fresh look at the DVD-RAM format because of the introduction of DVD Multi-drives that burn three types of DVD discs: DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD-RAM. Of these, only DVD-RAM is a truly rewritable format. DVD-RW requires erasing an entire disc to reuse it. With DVD-RAM, you copy, move and delete files at will, just as you would on a hard drive. The capacity of a two-sided disc is 9.4GB; the more common one-sided disc holds half that.

Every version of Windows after XP includes native DVD-RAM support, as does Apple’s OS X.

The most serious drawback to the format is speed. The top native transfer rate of around 3MBps is dreadful compared to tape. However, since drives are so inexpensive, it would be reasonable to use several drives at once, using each to back up a different set of files.

There is a solution on the horizon (12 to 24 months) that will address the limitations of DVD formats for data storage. A couple of months ago, for example, Sony started selling the first Blu-Ray device in Japan as a pricey video recorder. The Blu-Ray DVD uses a more precise laser that packs 27GB on each side of a CD-sized disc. Several other vendors have licensed the technology, so a push into the data-storage market is inevitable. But it will take time, not only to ramp up production, but to perfect the copy protection that content providers, such as movie studios, will demand. There are also competing high-density recordable DVD technologies in the pipeline from NEC, Toshiba and Sanyo.

I expect that by 2006, you’ll have your pick of recordable drives and libraries capable of storing 25GB to 50GB on each side of a two-sided disc. When that kind of capacity is a reality, tape’s time will have finally run out.

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