Tape has soul

In the cupboard under the stairs is my VHS machine. It chewed up the last two cassettes I attempted to play on it (about 6 years ago). So with an odd assortment of tapes it remains there gathering dust. But for some nostalgic reason I haven't thrown it out. It appears that I am not alone. Long discussions with customers and colleagues have lead to a similar conclusion – there is something about tape that is comforting.

While virtual tape, disk de-duplication, and snapshots play an increasingly important role in data protection, tape still sits at the heart of business continuity. As time passes, that part is likely to diminish. Without doubt tape is the cheapest medium for long term storage, but for day-to-day backups, disk (including VTL) is steadily taking more and more market share.

These days new tape libraries have a more efficient footprint and coupled with a reduction in tape usage, are likely to become even smaller. Thus, the question is will the data centre lose some of its character as the last of the truly mechanical components leave?

Some people believe so. Failing robotic arms and tape drives have forced me out of bed on numerous occasions; however I have to agree that there is something tangible about their mechanical nature. If you are in the data centre and a tape is mounted in the drive you know something is happening. It is the ultimate proof of connectivity. The whirring of a disk array doesn't give the same feeling of satisfaction. You simply don't form the same connection with the hardware. The robotic arm is the hunter gatherer of the data centre, where as a disk array is merely a faceless producer of heat with randomly flashing LEDs.

Backup administrators form bonds with their infrastructure, they quarrel with it then nurse it better. Like children, tapes have to be managed, sent offsite and looked after. They even have names giving them a personality all of their own – "A00035! That one failed last week as well, the little blighter." The somewhat painful urban legends of people getting trapped inside large libraries and clouted by the robotic arms aren't there with VTL, and we need that sort of (often fabricated) excitement in IT!

After your backup operation has finished you can take the tape out and hold it. Place it somewhere safe. You know where that data is and there is a sort of comfort in that knowledge.

Tape technology will not leave our data centres just yet, but if, and when it does, backup administrators, like programmers that reminisce about punch cards, will fondly remember physical tape long after it has been assigned to the cupboard under the stairs.

About the author: David Boyd is a senior consultant at Glasshouse Technologies (UK), a global provider of IT infrastructure services, with over 7 years experience in backup and storage, with a major focus on designing and implementing backup solutions for blue chip companies.

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