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What to do with 110,000 Magstar tapes and 11PB of data

Too big for VTL and fading fast amid Indian heat and dust

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What do you do with 110,000 IBM 3590 cartridges? That’s the problem an Indian resources company faced last year. The cartridges, which IBM introduced way back in 1995 under the Magstar name offered a 60 gigabyte capacity that then seemed capacious, and collectively contained around 11 petabytes of geospatial data.

But with 3590 kit hard to come by and simply finding space in which to house – and preserve – all those tapes a chore, the company decided it get the data onto another medium.

Enter Australia’s Spectrum Data, which specialises in just this kind of data migration. The company’s Perth headquarters resembles a slightly shambolic super villain’s lair, thanks to the old-school reel-to-reel tape drives it scrounges from around the world to bring old data back to life.

Spectrum won a tender to convert the resources company’s 3590s, with IBM’s newer 3592 tape format the target.

Guy Holmes, A Director a Spectrum Data, says the resources company considered migrating to a disk-based virtual tape library (VTL)but faced two problems making that move. One was that at 11 petabytes any VTL would have been one of the planet’s largest such rigs, and the client wasn’t keen to work at such an unprecedented scale.

The other issue was that India’s not exactly the best place on earth in which to stand up a rig that needs power and cooling 24x7. That factor made scale-out NAS, dedicated storage appliances whose vendors talk about snacking on tens of petabytes of data in a single name space, tough to contemplate. The cost of 11 petabytes of disk was also perturbing.

With disk storage unfeasible, that left a plan to manually sift through tapes, reconstructing databases that spanned several cartridges and laboriously preparing the data for migration to newer tapes.

Which took 18 months.

To make it happen, Spectrum established a team of 11 in India. Manual work to read and inventory the tapes was a big part of the gig, as every tape was photographed and catalogued to ensure data integrity and to allow the creation of metadata that would speed access to the consolidated library. As data was processed it was assembled into virtual 3592 tapes, which were then presented to the resources company for signoff. Only personnel from the client could press the “Write” button to formally migrate data onto a 3592 cartridge.

At the end of the project, fewer than 8,000 3592 cartridges remained.

Holmes said the resources company can now at least contemplate a VTL and quite enjoys having fewer tapes to tend.

As for Spectrum Data, it’s moving on in the direction of Myanmar, where the government has a similar project that needs tackling. And before long, Holmes expects the world will come knocking with piles of LTO-1 and LTO-2 cartridges for re-platforming.

“There’s half a billion LTO cartridges out there and not many have been destroyed,” Holmes says. “And there’s a lot of eight millimetre tapes from the late 1980s, too. They’re becoming harder to read and devices are hard to find.” ®

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