The Tape Drive is dead! Long Live the Tape Drive…

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…or with full credit to Mark Twain: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Contrary to popular belief, the tape drive is NOT dead. Indeed it still lives on as the least expensive (by the MB) long-term archival device you can purchase today for the SMB (Small and Medium Business) space. The news of its demise is a myth propagated by those who would have you buy online backup services. We sell tape drives, disk-based backups AND online backup storage so I have no bias. Truth is, we make the highest margin on online backups so I may be shooting myself in the foot here but dammit, the truth needs telling.

Strong words, yes. But true. Don’t believe me? Think that tape drives are “ancient technology”? Well, you’re not alone. But let’s debunk some common myths about tape technology:


Myth #1 – Tape technology is a dinosaur

Tape technology has and is still steadily improving. Last year, LTO5 was unveiled and it boasts the highest capacity and read/write speeds to date. Much R&D is poured into tape technology every year. If tape technology is so dead, why have tape drive sales been steadily increasing since the advent of LTO technology back in the year 2000?

Myth #2 – Tape is too slow

Compared to…? LTO5 technology moves along at a scorching 1008GB / hour. That means you can backup (or restore) a full 1TB per hour. Slow it is not. It’s actually faster than a lot of disk drive arrays. And it can store up to 3TB of compressed data per tape. Not bad for less than a hundred bucks per tape. Still want to backup to your USB 2.0 drive? You will be lucky to get 180GB per hour in a perfect vacuum while going downhill with the wind at your back – and that’s over 5 times slower!

Myth #3 – Tape drives are unreliable

The MTBF (mean time between failure) on an IBM LTO5 (HP and Dell make ‘em too) device is 350,000 hours at a 100% duty cycle. Andand they are all every bit as reliable. That is a whopping 40 years of non-stop, at-capacity service! In comparison, SATA drives (your standard “run of the mill” hard drive you would use in a disk backup system) have an MTBF of 1,000,000 hours at a 20% duty cycle. You will never, ever see a duty cycle of 20% in a backup device; not with the amount of data most business are creating these days. Do tape drives break down? Yup – but so do hard drives. They are both highly mechanical devices and as such are subsequent to failure. What’s that? In English you say? OK – we at Syncronet have done countless restores; some single or multiple file restores and some disaster recoveries and tapes have yet to let us down due to tape or mechanical failure. I’ll say it again: we have done pant loads of restores and tapes have yet to let us down due to tape or mechanical failure. Backups fail, yes. But they fail far more often because of software than they do because of hardware and disk-based backups are subject to the same software failures as tapes are.

Myth #4 – Tapes are unreliable

Again, a fallacy. Tapes have a “shelf life” of 15-30 years. That means you can record data on it today and still expect to be able to read it 20 years from now. And what about ongoing usage? Well, a tape written to once a week is good for about 4 years and your monthly tapes are good for over 15 years of yeoman service. Yes, it will die if you leave it on your dashboard when it is 90 degrees outside (d’oh!) and it will die if your 2 year old pulls the tape out to see how long it is but excessive heat and 2 year olds are also bad for hard drives. At the end of the day, your data will be long dead before the tape will. Heck, I’ll probably be long dead before the tape is!

Myth #5 – Tape is too expensive

Tape is still the cheapest “by the meg” backup media you can buy. At least for the non-enterprise customer (and that’s pretty much all my customers). You can get disk-based backup systems with a lower per MB cost but the ante is often starting at 5 figures and capacity is waaay more than what is required in the SMB space – especially the “small s” SMB space. Tape drives are not cheap, but they have great ROI.

Myth #6 – Tape is complex and confusing

Only if you are incapable of inserting and ejecting a tape. OK – maybe you don’t have that concern if you have a disk-based appliance but if you are backing up using USB drives (my condolences) you still have to swap them in and out. And the trouble with disk-based appliances is they are not portable and you really do need a way to get the data safely offsite. Tapes can do that.

These are common misconceptions about tape that are propagated by purveyors of online backup services and there are more but the bottom line is, every backup solution has its place and make no mistake, there is still a seat reserved for tape backup. Tapes are cheap, portable, hold buckets of data, and are (contrary to popular belief) quite reliable. When does it fail? Read this carefully now (twice)… WHEN YOU DON’T REGULARLY TEST YOUR BACKUPS! I have harped on ad infinitum on that subject, boy-howdy. And you can bet your bottom dollar that disk-based and (especially) online backups need to be tested too – regularly! The key to disaster recoverability is in the planning, proper implementation and regular testing of your recovery protocols. So everyone repeat after me – “I will check my backup logs daily and I will test my restores at least monthly.” Ooh – better yet (Warning: shameless plug ahead), hire us to do it for you. We promise (and deliver) reliable backups and more importantly, restores. By disk, online and oh yes – also by tape.