Old tape libraries never die -- someone needs the data

Bertha was my first big tape library. I had complete authority over the backup system that sent her little tasks, and total responsibility for correcting her numerous fibre card problems.

She wasn't anything impressive -- 500 slots with eight DLT tape drives -- but at the time this tape library was as big as my Volkswagen and cost five times as much. On my last week with her, someone asked me when she'd be upgraded. My reply was a confused look and stunned silence. Bertha need an upgrade? Never!

Despite our personal attachments to clunky inanimate objects, we upgrade things constantly. A day doesn't pass that I don't see an ad in the paper for recycling old mobile phones. I can't count how many Blackberrys I've been through, and I've run just as many laptops through the gauntlet.

Technology has become easy to replace. The release of new and improved techie toys is rampant and never-ending. Most of these old technologies get thrown by the wayside, or recycled in some manner – easily replaceable. But what happens when they're not?

Berthas are a typical problem in today's backup environments. DLT is the tape world's equivalent of Sanskrit – a 1000-year-old dead technology that only a handful of people remember. The problem is that there's information written in Sanskrit somewhere that will cost a pretty penny to translate.

Your backup environment could contain thousands of tapes gathering dust in some offsite vault, nearly at their expiration date. A month before that, a regulations committee decides, on a whim, that they want to examine some 7-year-old files. You recall your 7-year-old tape, hold it in your hand, and look blankly at the spot where Bertha used to sit. She's gone, her compatible drives with her, and the sleek new LTO-4 drives, racing through backup data, hardly breaking a sweat, seem to guffaw at the thought of reading something so archaic.

What do you do?

DLT is the tape world's equivalent of Sanskrit – a 1000-year-old dead technology that only a handful of people remember.
Brian Sakovitch
senior consultantGlassHouse Technologies (UK)
Selling new kit isn't hard. Every new technology gets faster, performs more tricks and singlehandedly saves the environment. Some businesses plan for the inevitable and pay a handsome sum to transfer old data to new tape. Backup software designers do not make that a quick operation since each of those thousands of tapes can take up three to four hours alone. Though this can often be scripted, the process can go on for months in the background.

So instead Bertha sticks around, taking up floor space and eating a portion of your budget every year for support. There are too many floors with at least two legacy libraries just hanging around taking up space. Two or three legacy Volkswagens don't take up just a corner of anyone's data centre.

When upgrading technology, the influences of old standards die hard. Those old tapes are out of sight and usually out of mind. Despite any sales pitch, the ability to restore that data can potentially be more important than any amount of energy savings. It may simply require buying a little one-drive stacker library, or a locally mounted drive to stave off budgetary fears and allow for Bertha to move on. A well-thought-out plan needs to be in place and capital allotted to it before any sleek new drives are considered. Otherwise, those whimsical regulation committees will have quite a pleasant chuckle on their way to the bank.

About the author: Brian Sakovitch is a senior consultant at GlassHouse Technologies (UK), a global provider of IT infrastructure services. Brian has followed a 6-year path in backup technologies ranging from hands-on installation and implementation, to design and theory. Three of those years have been with GlassHouse US, focusing on a number of predominantly backup-related engagements for companies of all shapes and sizes.

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