Tape Is (Not) Dead -- And These Solution Providers Are Living Proof

Tape isn't really dead. It just depends on what is being done with it.

There's no doubt the tape business is falling. The Santa Clara Consulting Group, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based research firm, estimated total backup tape sales in the fourth quarter of 2014 amounted to $121.5 million, down nearly 14 percent from the $141.1 million in sales estimated for the fourth quarter of 2013.

Of the total amount of tape sold in the fourth quarter of 2014, the LTO format accounted for just less than 97 percent, the Santa Clara Consulting Group estimated. This is despite a drop in unit shipments of LTO tape cartridges in that quarter to 4.7 million units compared with the 4.9 million units sold in the same quarter of 2013.

[Related: Tales Of The Tape: 6 LTO-7 Technology Strategies]

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However, that's still more than $120 million worth of tapes sold. And that does not count sales of the tape libraries and autoloaders that use them, or the services built around the industry.

And it's also a business that is still appreciated by many in the channel.


Many in the channel grow passionate in their response to the idea that tape is dead, despite the fact that tape is typically only a small part of their business.

John Zammett, president of HorizonTek, a Huntington, N.Y.-based solution provider, first got into the storage business in the early 1980s just after reading a 1981 article that proclaimed that tape was dead.

"I put three daughters through college selling tape," Zammett told CRN.

Kevin Cunningham, systems engineer at XIOSS, an Atlanta-based solution provider, compared the "death" of tape to the "death" of the mainframe.

"For the past 30 years I've heard that the mainframe is dead also," Cunningham told CRN. "Yet IBM just released a new OS earlier this year. Like the mainframe, tape may be a dinosaur. And the meteor [that will destroy life on Earth] may be out there somewhere, but it hasn't hit yet."


For those solution providers still bringing tape technology to customers -- and there are a lot -- tape remains a key component to a well-rounded solution.

Tape is not recommended as a primary backup mechanism, said Unnar Gardarsson, director of managed services at Alvaka Networks, an Irvine, Calif.-based provider of network management and IT support services.

"High-speed SANs and distributed systems provide fast recovery of data, and can be used to run virtual machines with recovered data," Gardarsson told CRN. "But I never believed a company should rely on only one backup solution. If data is so important, you can't relay on one software or one piece of media. To be safe, keep older tape technology as a backup to your backups."

Gardarsson suggested keeping tape automation devices well maintained, and to do full backups at least once a week for the last fallback position for data.

"And if customers have an old tape system, they should budget for a new one," he said. "They won't be run as often as older systems were, so they will last longer."

HorizonTek now sells maybe two or three tape libraries a month, which is considerably fewer than it did in the past, Zammett said.

But customers are still buying. "Law firms, government organizations, educational institutions, you name it," he said. "Smaller business or startups are not going to use tape. They'll go to the cloud, or to disk backups. But there's still a lot of legacy business. A lot of companies go with what they know. For them, the cloud is an unknown."

Tape is still opening doors to new customers for Integrated Media Technologies (IMT), a North Hollywood, Calif.-based solution provider.

Jason Kranitz, senior vice president of sales at IMT, told CRN his company's tape business is growing, including sales to net-new tape customers.

"They're seeing the value with tape, especially at the low to midrange market, compared to alternatives like object storage, which is expensive for under 500 TB of capacity," he said.

Tape is also the best alternative at the high end of the market for archiving data when capacities exceed 5 PB, Kranitz said.

"At that capacity, big libraries with tape still price out better than both Amazon Web Services' Glacier or anyone's object storage technology," he said. "Amazon talks about under 1 cent per GB, per month for Glacier. But that doesn't take into the equation the data pipes a customer needs, or the cost of getting data out of the cloud. Over three to five years, it's still better to roll your own archives with LTO or object storage."

For unstructured data, deep archiving is a cost game, Kranitz said. "And nothing is cheaper than a tape," he said.

Tape may be dead as a primary way to store backup data, said Kris Queen, director of technology at Alliance Technology Group, a Hanover, Md.-based solution provider.

"But when you look at how to store and retain data for audit and regulatory reasons, tape is the way to do it without spending too much," Queen told CRN.

Some customers that use tape for large, long-term data retention use disk as a buffer to increase performance and use file systems to manage the tape data, Queen said.

"The cost of tape is so much less than disk," he said. "As long as you can satisfy requirements for high-speed data needs with disk, the rest of the data can go on tape."

One Alliance Technology Group customer had gotten rid of tape in the past, but then found out that maintaining a fairly large archive of old files not working, Queen said.

"Six months ago, the customer brought in a file system that included both disk and tape," he said. "This customer had gotten rid of tape, and moved to deduping data for disk. But they found the dedupe ratio was not suitable for their data. So they went for a large tape library with a decent-sized disk cache."

Doug Cole, partner at LH Computer Services, a Coral Springs, Fla.-based solution provider, said his company is doing tape installations with new customers who need to keep data forever.

"We can help them recapture space by moving to tape while keeping a stub of the data on disk to find the data faster," Cole told CRN. "We have sold tape to customers who originally said they don't need tape, but then look at the cost of the alternative."

Tape is also important to customers as a way to protect data that has been backed up elsewhere, Cole said.

"It's important to have that second copy in case of a fire or other disaster," he said. "You don't want someone to say, 'Oh my God, there goes nine years of content.' "

Tape still has a big market for off-site vaulting, Cunningham said.

"We fit technology to what customers are looking for," he said. "Tape has its place, like disk. We often quote tape as part of a larger solution."


Solution providers continue to be amazed by the changes in tape technology, including the latest iteration of the LTO technology.

LTO-7, which was released in September, offers a raw capacity of 6 TB per cartridge, which is about 2.4 times the capacity of LTO-6 cartridges. With compression, maximum capacity rises to up to 15 TB per cartridge, or double that of LTO-6. LTO-7 tape drives feature data transfer rates of up to 750 MBps compressed, or more than 2.7 TB per hour, per drive.

The beauty of LTO-7 is that customers will not need as much capacity as required with previous technologies, Queen said.

"Systems to store data on tape are not as big as they used to be," he said. "Large customers may be able to get by with only four to six drives because of the increase in capacity and speed."

That kind of capacity is not without its dangers, Cunningham said. "It's a bit scary," he said. "Drop a tape, and a lot of data could disappear. Unfortunately, it does happen."