Time again for tape

Sun insists the death of tape has been greatly exaggerated, and thinks the market is set to keep on growing

Magnetic tape data storage may have been around for more than half a century but systems administrators will be stuck with it for some time yet, according to one of Sun's top storage executives.

"Tape's going to be around for a long time," Randy Kearns, vice-president of Sun's new Data Management Group, said in the wake of the finalisation of Sun's $4.1bn (£2.4bn) acquisition of primarily tape-focused vendor StorageTek.

However, Kearns is seeing changing patterns of usage for the venerable sequential access medium, which is now primarily used for backing up data stored on servers.

The changes come as organisations are faced with an increasing need to comply with government regulations dealing with short- and long-term storage of company records.

"Customers are changing the way they do backups.

"Tapes aren't going to be the backup medium of choice, but they're going to be the long-term retention medium of choice.

"It's going to be the archives and it's going to be the generational copies that they never get back," Kearns said.

He claimed that customers have started to use disk-based systems for their daily backup needs. "You always thought about tape for backup, but that's going to be more other technologies, disk to disk stuff, and continuous data protection stuff," the executive told ZDNet UK sister site ZDNet Australia. He was in Melbourne to speak with partners, customers and staff last week.

The disk migration, Kearns said, had probably begun around two years ago when high-speed and Serial ATA (S-ATA) drives hit the market, "establishing a new price point for disk".

"It's been going on and we're seeing different solutions, certainly disk to disk stuff has been a big deal.

"But now we're starting to see some continuous backup products out on the market ... things where we just keep track of changes and keep multiple generational backups — being able to establish a recovery time objective," he said.

The new systems have some drawbacks — they take up a lot of energy and consequently aren't economical for data that doesn't need to be accessed frequently.

"What we're seeing is that [tape's] still the most economical and environmentally friendly long-term storage," Kearns said. "If you're spinning disk and things like that, the power consumption and volumetric issues and so on are onerous."

Automation may also play a bigger part in future.

"Tape automation is really going to be the main thing, in that you're going to see big libraries, the robotics in them to handle tapes so we get the human element out as much as possible," said Kearns.

According to the executive, the death of tape has been predicted falsely now for some time.

"I worked at IBM a long time, and I think it was 1974 that I was working in their general practice division in Colorado.

"The head of the general practice division said to us in an all-hands meeting there that IBM believes that tape is dead, and we should be getting out of tape."

"IBM did indeed get out of tape, and that's what made StorageTek successful," Kearns said. "Then IBM got back into tape, and now they're number two in the tape business and StorageTek is number one.

"So tapes are going to be around for a long time. The roles are going to be a little different and changing, but that's just the way it is."

Renai LeMay reported from Sydney for ZDNet Australia. For more ZDNet Australia stories, click here.