Keeping magnetic tape storage relevant in the flash era

As technology advances, so too do storage methods. However, that does not mean legacy storage solutions should be left to gather dust on the shelf. Methods such as tape storage still have a place in enterprise in conjunction with new methods such as flash storage, as many organisations still depend on legacy solutions to manage the ever-growing volumes of data.

While tape storage may have been in play since 1928, it is still very much a valid and necessary form of storage almost ninety years down the line. Tape storage can be a useful medium for businesses dealing with compliance rules, internal policies, or if businesses simply need to archive backups using tape infrastructure they have already invested in.

Not only is tape storage another option to make backups portable and take them offsite, but due to significant investments in both hardware and media, in many cases, it is also the only viable option for long-term archiving and storing large data sets in a locked environment. As tapes are a static form of storage that isn’t constantly running, it can be a convenient way to archive backups produced by specific jobs, or archive entire backup repositories. This allows businesses to have multiple backup jobs in the infrastructure and combine these into a single archive, to tape.

Three characteristics

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Additionally, tape has three other characteristics that are relevant to organisations today. The first is that tape is an offline storage, which is critical to protect against cryptolocker-type security threats. The second characteristic is that tape has a low acquisition cost, when viewed per-Terabyte. Ideally, enterprises are using both disk and tape systems for the highest levels of availability. The third characteristic is that tape is a very portable storage media.

There are ways to streamline the process of storing data using tape to keep it relevant in the cloud and flash storage era, including flexible long-term retention by providing tape support for both automated tape libraries and standalone tape drives. Tape becomes effectively another tier of storage for the modern data centre of today.

Using a dedicated backup and availability programme can help make tape storage run more efficiently. Features such as improving organisation through grouping of tape libraries with the ability to automatically and transparently failover tape jobs to another library when storage is full; and implementing a “Grandfather – Father – Son” (GFS) media pool for full backups, reducing tape consumption on long-term retention policies.

Old meets new

In a world where old is meeting new, there is room for both. Tape and flash provide their respective benefits to different use cases in the data centre; yet both have something still to prove.

It is thought that there are risks with flash storage at scale, however, just like any storage investment, accounting for when things don’t go as expected should be inherently part of the design. In particular, the data management approach of the data centre needs to keep the experience factor central for the entire process. The successful IT professional and data centre architect will incorporate availability into the fundamental design of the data centre. This will be a combination of making the modern data centre built on being highly virtualised, ready for a cloud strategy and investments in modern storage such as flash.

Simply put, if data centre architects place large flash storage systems in place for primary storage; what is the consideration for the protection of that infrastructure? While it may not be realistic to expect a flash primary storage arrangement and two or three times that storage available for protection as well in the form of more flash storage; consideration does need to be given to ensuring the performance levels of each tier of the storage investment. The protection tier can be designed to run at the same performance level as the primary storage tier, should the requirements exist in that regard.

The 3-2-1 rule

The main thing to seek from a flash provider is integration to the data centre. If there is a solid virtualisation strategy in place, does this new flash product integrate well? Additionally, how can it be managed and protected? Are there array snapshots to leverage? Is there off-site storage replication? Additional features that are commonplace in the rotational storage space are the next natural questions to ask when it comes to flash storage.

When combining flash and tape, IT teams have to decide which data to store with which method. When data has been used for its original and primary purpose, but still needs to be stored for legal, contractual, or regulatory purposes, tape is the perfect method. Tapes are designed to be properly maintained to ensure data can be accessed when necessary.

While the underlying technologies may change, the rules of availability for the data centre IT professionals and their responsibilities do not. Organisations demand tape storage which is why vendors have continued to provide support in their solutions. While there is still demand, tape storage will remain relevant, however, IT professionals can look to combine methods such as flash storage with legacy mediums, in the interest of fully virtualising the data centre, and adopting newer technologies while avoiding technology being discontinued.

Rick Vanover, Senior Product Strategy Manager, Veeam