Reconditioned or Recycled Computer Tape Media

By: James Walsh

For all its benefits, digital data has one serious drawback that can prove fatal - it is volatile and can disappear abruptly due to a variety of hardware and software causes. Once the data gets lost, it is an uphill and very expensive task to get it recovered professionally. It is essential therefore for all computer users to keep a backup of their important data.

There are quite a few data-storage devices available in the market which make for excellent backup tools, such as portable hard drives, compact disks (CDs), digital video disks (DVDs) and USB flash drives. However, the most popular backup media for companies that has been existing for decades and still going strong is the tape drive.

Tape drives store data on a narrow and thin plastic tape coated with magnetic paint. They provide one of the lowest costs of storage per MB of data and are typically used for archiving hard-disk files. Tape drives, unlike hard drives, provide sequential data access. A hard drive can instantly extract a data file regardless of where it is stored on the data-recording surface due to its mobile read / write head.

A tape drive however has a stationary head. The entire tape has to move back and forth in front of it until the desired location is reached. Due to this, tape drives have a very low seek time. However, this drawback is hardly an issue with archival data storage.

The modern economy is a very competitive one. Margins are razor-thin and competitors are always sniping at the heels. Many companies realise the benefits of storing their archival data on a tape drive but are hesitant to invest a large amount of money. To keep their investments low, they go for what are called "reconditioned" tape drives. These cost a fraction of the new tape drives, thus allowing companies to benefit from tape-drive storage at a reduced cost.

There are many vendors out there who specialise in selling reconditioned tape drives. Also called "re-certified" or "previously owned" media, these are old and used tapes that are carefully cleaned, refurbished and degaussed in a factory setting to make them as good as new. However, it is not as attractive as it sounds. There are many issues that have to be settled before you decide to store your critical business data on recycled tape media.

The biggest problem the buyer faces is that of uncertainty about the history of the tapes. Who was using them? How well were they used? Were they lying in a rubbish dump when they were picked up for recycling? Did the previous owner take good care of them? How is their quality after refurbishing?

If a tape was used in an ill-maintained dirty drive, it may transfer some of the contaminants to the drive of the new owner, which in turn will infect other tapes. The debris may result in head degradation and damage to other perfectly fine media, which may cost more money to repair than whatever the bargain-hunter saved in buying the reconditioned tapes.

There are various kinds of damages inflicted on tape media that are invisible to the naked eye. The recycled tape may be having microscopic scratches that gradually would widen with use. They may shed debris and contaminate or clog the read / write head. If the scratches turn into cracks, the tape may snap, leading to data loss and the need for carrying out repairs.

Another variable is the condition in which the tapes were stored by the previous owner. If the cassettes were dumped in an area where the heat or humidity levels were high, that would have degraded the media quality. When you use that tape again after refurbishing, it may break or stretch. In the latter case, the head-to-tape contact is negatively affected and gives rise to data-reading errors.

When second-hand tapes are recycled, they are degaussed, that is, exposed to a very strong magnetic field that wipes the tapes clean and brings them to their virgin state. This is a delicate process for which a very powerful and large electro-magnet is required. Imperfectly degaussed tapes will have fragments of previous data files still existing on them. This raises issues of data confidentiality as well as quality of backups. Most recyclers of tape media lack the kind of quality controls and product-testing procedures that are employed by the original manufacturers and often do not offer any kind of warranty.

If you still want to go for recycled tape media, make sure that they are of very good quality and bought from reputed vendors. Otherwise, these tapes are more trouble than they are worth and may let you down when you need them the most.


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