British Antarctic Survey

Slot of the Antarctic: Tape the best option for polar survey backup

Tape deemed the best medium for backup on board the Antarctic research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough, with Quantum’s Scalar i3 chosen in a fully redundant deployment

In extreme conditions, no other storage medium is as efficient as tape for backup. That’s the conclusion arrived at by Jeremy Robst, who is IT support engineer at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) for polar missions by the research ship RRS Sir David Attenborough.

“Research voyages generally last between six weeks and two months and generate around 100TB of data that we then bring together for processing in Cambridge,” says Robst. “There, we share the data between researchers in the community.

“We can copy instrument data onto removable disks and take them to the UK. But if we generate 100TB of data on a single voyage, that becomes impossible,” he adds. “But with tape, we can store very large volumes of data in a compact format then easily put the cartridges in baggage on the way back.”

The challenge: Store a lot in minimal space

The key challenge is that the research vessel is so well-equipped with scientific equipment that there is a constraint on available space. Operated by the National Environment Research Centre (NERC), the RRS Sir David Attenborough is designed especially for use in polar regions and has laboratories, cutting-edge instrumentation to study water, marine animals, the seabed and the atmosphere on board.

“We’re very concerned with minimising what we have on board,” says Robst. “Going to the places we go means having a replacement for everything. In these conditions, we can’t set off with backup solutions onboard that need a server because that would mean taking a replacement too.”

There lies the problem – most archive products that use tape need a dedicated server.

After studying the market for some time, the NERC IT team settled on the Quantum Scalar i3 tape library, which was the only one that would fit the constraints of the RRS Sir David Attenborough.

“This product allows us to put the library and server in one box that we just have to connect to the network,” says Robst.

In fact, the Scalar i3 deployment allows all data to be recovered from a single 10Gbps Ethernet connection via fibre.

Everything doubled up

The team decided to buy four Scalar i3 libraries. One is equipped as a Veeam backup target for scientific equipment readings, while a second is equipped with network-attached storage that holds a backup copy of data held on the first Scalar i3. Two are kept as replacements.

“The Scalar i3 tape libraries are connected so that the server blade of one can use the tape drive of the other in case of an incident. The vessel is a very costly platform and in daily use, so it is vital we take all possible measures to protect the data that researchers collect”
Jeremy Robst, British Antarctic Survey

These servers – iBlade Veeam Tape Server and iBlade LTFS – come in blade form and are inserted to the rear of the Scalar i3 library.

“The two Scalar i3 tape libraries are connected so that the server blade of one can use the tape drive of the other in case of an incident,” says Robst. “The vessel is a very costly platform and in daily use, so it is vital we take all possible measures to protect the data that researchers collect.”

Robst adds that the tape libraries allow for restoration of data during expeditions. That’s useful when, for example, researchers want to run data that is no longer on equipment hard drives, either for reasons of space or human error.

The Scalar i3 libraries are equipped with LTO-8 tape drives, which allow for up to 12TB raw per cartridge or 30TB compressed.

It’s early days for a review of the deployment, however. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed the departure of RRS Sir David Attenborough, so the recorded cartridges will not deliver their discoveries until 2021.

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