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Tape rocks for storage - if you don't need to, um, access your data

SSDs wait in the wings, sharpening their scythes

Death Watch Beetle

Storagebod Watching the SpectraLogic announcements from afar and getting involved in a conversation about tape on Twitter has really brought home the ambivalent relationship I have with tape; it is a huge part of my professional life but if it could be expunged from my environment, I’d be more than happy.

Ragging on the tape vendors does at times feel like kicking a kitten but ultimately tape sucks as a medium. Its fundamental problem is that it is a sequential medium in a random world.

If you are happy to write your data away and only ever access it in a truly predictable fashion, it is potentially fantastic - but unfortunately much of business is not like this.

People talk about tape as being the best possible medium for cold storage and that is true – as long as you never want to thaw large quantities quickly. If you only ever want to thaw a small amount and in relatively predictable manner, you’ll be fine with tape. Well, in the short term, anyway.

And getting IT departments to look at an horizon which is more than one refresh generation away is extremely tough.

Of course, replacing tape with disk is not yet economic over the short-term views that we generally take. The cost of disk is still high when compared to tape; disk’s environmental footprint is still relatively poor and from a sheer density point of view, tape still has a long way to go... even if we start to factor in upcoming technologies such as shingled disks.

For long-term archives, disk will continue to struggle against tape. However, does that mean we are doomed to live with tape for years to come? SSDs are going to take 5-7 years to hit parity with disk prices, which means that they are not going to hit parity with tape for some time.

Yet I think the logical long-term replacement for tape at present will be SSDs in some form or another. I fully expect the Facebooks and the Googles of this world to start to look at the ways of building mass archives on SSD in an economic fashion. They have massive data requirements and as they grow to maturity as businesses, the age of that data is increasing. And their users do very little in the way of curation, so that data is going to grow forever and it probably has fairly random access patterns.

You don’t know when someone is going to start going through someone’s pictures, videos and timelines, so that cold data could warm pretty quickly and having to recall it from tape is not going to be fun. Unless of course you come up with ways of co-locating an individual’s entire data footprint on a single tape.

A simple trawl could send a tape-robot into melt down. Perhaps you could do some big data analytics and start recalling data based on timelines; employ a bunch of actuaries to analyse the data and recall data based on actuarial analysis.

Various news organisations already do this to a certain extent and have obits prepared for most major world figures. But this social media issue would be at another scale entirely.

So funnily enough, tape, the medium that has so far refused to go away could be kiboshed by death. And if the hyper-scale companies can come up with an economic model which replaces tape, I’ll raise a glass to good times and mourn it little.

And with that cheerful note … I’ll close. ®

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