Mainframe tape backup: Vintage or outdated?

This year, the UK mainframe community will abandon its 1980s-style tape backup technologies, according to this systems integrator.

The 1960s brought us The Beatles, the jet engine, space travel and the first comprehensive attempt to build an enterprise computing platform, otherwise known as the mainframe.

IBM, with its 360 series, and the now obsolete group of companies called BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC and Honeywell) approached the market with a common philosophy: to provide an all-embracing, computing platform designed with the highest levels of resilience and reliability. They wanted to use it in a wide range of industries and across the whole spectrum of commercial applications.

During the succeeding fifty years, we’ve seen improvements in technology that would have been unthinkable in the 1960s and ’70s. But, despite often overwhelming challenges from nonmainframe technologies, the mainframe has survived, retaining a dominant position in legacy data centres running the most business-critical systems for the enterprise. This happened even with IBM holding a monopolistic position in the market following the withdrawal of the BUNCH competitors in the ’80s and ’90s.

While very few new applications are written for the mainframe nowadays, a recent survey from CA Technologies showed that 82% of the UK’s current mainframe users expect their configurations to continue and actually expand during 2011 mainly because of their reliability and cost-effectiveness. However, they all criticised the high costs of the operating systems and associated software and the inability to easily reduce these costs.

Mainframe tape backup and disaster recovery

An area of IT where these issues are clearly visible is backup and disaster recovery. Today, most mainframe users are still using magnetic tape for their backup because, historically, disk storage was much more expensive than it is today. And this poses a wide range of problems for data centre managers, including the following:

  • How to back up exponentially growing volumes of key data with shorter backup windows whilst using outdated technology, particularly when their tape infrastructure is approaching end of life.
  • How to meet ever higher government and professional compliance standards for data recovery.
  • How to save power and space in the data centre as required by corporate management and the environment.
  • How to ensure that business-critical data is suitably protected.

As a result, data centre managers are looking for ways to eliminate their dependence on physical tape backup and its off-site vaulting for disaster recovery purposes.

A recent survey of UK mainframe users, conducted by Shoden Data Systems, found that

  • Nearly all respondents still had magnetic tape backup systems for recovery -- split roughly 50/50 between IBM and Oracle (Sun and StorageTek) silos.
  • More than a third of these tape backup silos would reach end of life within six months and become a major management and cost issue in 2011.
  • 10% of the respondents did not undertake an annual data recovery exercise because it was perceived to be too difficult.
  • More than half of the respondents would like to invest in more current disk-based backup and recovery technologies, particularly using data deduplication to recover data at electronic disk-based speed rather than with their current mechanical tape-based processes.

Disk-based deduplication solutions for the mainframe were adopted in both the USA and Japan in 2010 by more than 200 end users who now enjoy much quicker and more reliable data and disaster recovery systems. Testing is easier and more achievable, and organisations are saving up to 90% in floor space (and subsequent power and cooling savings) compared to a traditional silo environment.

This will be the year when the UK mainframe community abandons its 1980s-style tape technologies to embrace the 21st century’s disk-based data deduplication. Just as The Beatles currently adorn billboards and magazine pages as they debut on MP3 technology, the UK mainframes will advance from the tape backup/cassettes age.

John Taffinder is the chief executive of systems integrator Shoden Data Systems UK and a contributor to

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