Tape - Still the Best for Backup and Archiving

By: Mark Sear

Tape is one of the real old die hards in the world of data storage and archiving. (Remember those shots of the Apollo mission when the fate of the astronauts was in the hands of those whirling spools of magnetic tape in mission control?) But with the introduction in recent decades of a slew of more modern media - optical discs, memory cards, and zip drives, for example, does plain old tape still have a role to play?

If you're a traditionalist, you'll be pleased to learn that the answer is an (almost) unqualified 'yes'. Tape's enduring popularity is due to the range of advantages it offers.

For one thing, using magnetic tape for backup is extremely cost effective. You can backup your entire server on one mid-range tape which costs around $20. Plus, magnetic tape can be re-used. So you can copy new information onto tapes from earlier backups. As your data grows and changes, you are always making new copies and are not overwhelmed with countless spools or reels of tape.

Then, there's magnetic tape's long archival stability. Tape is no longer stored on open reels but in hardy cartridge formats which include DLT and LTO. However, the fact remains that tape is a contact medium. So the resulting abrasion will ultimately wear the tape out. Nonetheless, the lifespan of tape compares favourably with other media. And consider this. Drop a tape on the floor from a few feet up, and then do the same with a disk. Which one is more likely to work well afterwards? I think you know the answer. The fact is that any medium can fail. In fact, recent research has revealed that the shelf life of optical media such as DVDs is far less than originally thought. In fact, well under a decade.

What's more, though tape is seen as an old technology, innovation has been going on. For example, the introduction of WORM (Write-Once-Read-Many) tape has provided additional security for data that is being stored for legal and compliance purposes.

Of course tape has its own foibles which need to be handled with care. For one thing, it is a thin plastic medium and so need to be stored in the right environment free from corrosive elements. A dedicated archival room is essential for effective storage.

And with regard to data recovery, you have to remember the following. Essentially, any data that has been overwritten is gone forever. A tape drive will not let you get to older data beyond the overwritten portion. However for tapes damaged by the elements, the scenario is more promising. Ultimately, though, the key to the recovery of tape data is an understanding the data that has been recovered, so the most powerful data recovery tool is the brain.

At the end of the day, every medium has it good and bad points. But magnetic tape's combination of economy, hardiness and re usability give it the edge you need to handle all your data backup needs. Tape for backup and archiving has already clicked up a half-century of solid use and looks set to be with us for another 50 years at least.

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