Magnetic tape technology is a bit like an old dog that's been in the family for years. The pooch is as familiar as the wallpaper, and you often forget he's around. But, even if you haven't paid him much attention lately, he predictably stays right where you hope he would be. Don't feel like picking up the clod of meatloaf that just fell to the floor? Scrumpf! Parked under the table as always, canine cleaner's got it.
Tape is like that. It chugs away unobtrusively in a drive or a library in your data center or silently holds your data in an off-site vault. It's as familiar as the wallpaper and as easy to ignore as the dog. But, in one key way, it's different. As the saying goes, an old dog probably can't learn new tricks. Tape can.
Driving the need for tape to learn a few more tricks are regulatory compliance demands. Yes, that means HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), Sarbanes-Oxley, and the rest. Says Jim Jonez, director of product management for tape vendor Quantum Corp.'s (Milpitas, CA) DLTtape Group, "More and more companies are having to specify long-term requirements for the tape solutions they use to archive data." Tape manufacturer Imation Corp.'s (Oakdale, MN) Director of Business Strategy Jim Ellis agrees that archival requirements put an increasingly exacting burden on end users. "You can no longer just collect data; you have to be able to manage it," Ellis says. "And, you have to collect and manage it according to processes and procedures that guarantee its security and availability for longer periods of time."
So, an old trick that tape needs to continue to perform well is handle more data with each succeeding generation. Key additional tricks are the ability to protect itself against overwriting and the ability to think smarter in managing itself. Advances in tape and head technology should take care of sustaining the old tricks. Developments in WORM (write once read many) functionality and built-in intelligence should foster the new.
Road Map For Tape Shows Upgrade Paths
As for adding capacity, the road maps for various leading tape formats indicate that tape is actually more like a puppy. Says Bob Covey, VP, marketing, for tape library vendor Qualstar Corp. (Simi Valley, CA), "The road maps are healthy. The LTO [linear tape open] road map goes out to 2 TB per cartridge. SAIT [super advanced intelligent tape] goes out to 4 TB per cartridge." Jonez notes that Quantum's SDLT [super digital linear tape] road map shows the 320 GB per cartridge in today's SDLT 320 generation moving to 2.4 TB per cartridge in the SDLT 2400 in a few years. Imation's Ellis confirms the observations: "There's a well-defined road map for tape technology. StorageTek, Quantum, the LTO vendors - all of them carry their road maps of defined products out for a number of generations."
The confidence expressed by those outlining capacity road maps stems from a key design factor: engineers have yet to reach the physical limits of how much data can be written to tape. According to Ellis, advances in media technologies should satisfy end users that they will be able to rely on tape cartridges to house increasingly large long-term data archives. "Tape has a lot of room to grow. Many users can still remember when cartridges offered only 9 tracks per half inch," he reminds us. "The latest products have about 500 tracks per half inch, and we're working on technologies that have more than 1,000 tracks."
Qualstar's Covey points to advances in head technology as a reason end users should not consider tape to be inferior to disk in terms of the physical capability to increase capacity. "People overlook how closely related tape and hard disk technologies are. At the physics level, magnetic recording heads are somewhat indifferent about what type of media passes across them," Covey says. "Any advancement in head technology in general can be applied to hard disk and to tape. Add advances in tape media, such as Sony's use of AME [advanced metal evaporative] on its AIT and SAIT media, and tape will continue to provide benefits."
Tape Gets Older And Wiser
With end users seeking failsafe archival solutions, write-once archiving may be the next killer app for tape. "We're seeing much more market interest in WORM products," Ellis says. "For compliance purposes, companies now want media that a drive cannot write over." According to Covey, that old dog tape can readily learn the new WORM trick because no revolutionary technology breakthrough was required. "Tape WORM was achieved by encoding the media so the drive's firmware knows not to overwrite or erase the data. It's a handshake between the firmware and the hard coating in the media," he explains. "But, the WORM capability was really an application of a technique that had already evolved in the optical disc field."
In addition to having write-protection functionality built into the drive/media exchange, tape-based WORM offers end users the flexibility not to use WORM media. That flexibility helps cut down on hardware overpurchasing. "Since the media carries the key to how the drive should treat it, you can do traditional backup and archival WORM backup in the same tape library," says Covey. "You just outfit the library with different media sets."
Of course, tape media - WORM or otherwise - is only effective when the backup or archiving process has been completed without error. To ensure the success of those processes, companies may want to invest in emerging technologies that build intelligence into tape cartridges and drives. Says Quantum's Jonez, whose company recently announced the development of intelligent tape maintenance tools, "Tape automation devices can now access information that has been captured in the cartridge and statistics that have been captured by the drives. That data can help tape automation devices identify, predict, and prevent failed backups and flawed archival transfers."