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Tape gets a boost

Tape lives! Well, after a fashion. And the bearer of the news?
Written by Manek Dubash, Contributor on

Tape lives! Well, after a fashion. And the bearer of the news? Believe it or not, it's Oracle.

There's been a general whittling away of the tape business over the last ten years, so much so that the press release I see once or twice a year announcing that tape is dead/not dead is received with little more than a yawn before I hit the delete button.

But then, there's tape and there's tape. In the small to medium-sized business, tape is almost certainly dead - although I'll be glad to hear from an organisation of that size that's still using tape for backup. Certainly in the home, no-one will be using tape.

The reasons are clear: tape requires a big upfront investment, it's slow, clunky and needs too much attention, as tapes big enough to hold all the data from the business are horribly expensive -- the mechanisms even more so -- and you still need to remember to swap tapes over every night. Meanwhile, disks are now big and cheap enough to use as a backup medium.

But if you're a multi-national megacorp, there's a strong argument for retaining tape. First is that you've got lots of tapes and a team of specialists to ensure that they are rewritten regularly, stored correctly, and properly catalogued. You have also invested mountains of cash into huge automated tape libraries that won't be amortised for years -- maybe decades. Above all though, you have vast quantities of data that need to be archived and stored for very long periods of time, but which won't be accessed very frequently -- if at all.

For such applications, tape remains king as, on a cash-per-gigabyte basis, it's still cheapest. What's more, you don't have to shell for half a power station's worth of electricity to keep rarely-accessed disks spinning. Yes there are alternatives to this scenario such as MAID, but they're not yet mainstream, nor fully proven.

So what's this all about? I hear that, a year on from Oracle's announcement of its acquisition of Sun, the company held a meeting with some of its biggest customers -- members of the Large Tape Users Group, typically with over 1PB -- to reassure them that the future of Sun's StorageTek tape equipment is safe in Oracle's hands.

After the uncertainty over Sun's commitment to the tape business, involving reorganisations and losses, all of which left many users uneasy, Oracle's words may well smooth troubled waters. However, as Forrester analyst Rachel Dines points out, "It's going to be more expensive and less flexible", and support costs have doubled.

Good old gouging Oracle, eh? Some things never change. The company clearly hopes that the news will stem the drip-drip of customers to the only real alternative, IBM, whose honeyed words may well see those customers thinking more about switching to DB2, Oracle's biggest core business rival.

But at least there's a commitment, and an announcement of a roadmap of new, faster and bigger tape formats will help to reassure the wobbly ones. Time will tell if it's enough...

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