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Tape – the Death Watch..

Watching the Spectralogic announcements from a far 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 removed 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; it’s 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 truly predictable fashions; 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 to look at an horizon which 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 pretty poor when compared to tape and from a sheer density point of view, tape still has a huge way to go…even if we start factor in upcoming technologies such as shingled disks.

So for long-term archives; disk will continue to struggle against tape…however does that means we are doomed to live with tape for years to come? Well 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 is 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…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.  So having to recall it from tape is not going to be fun; the contention issues for starters and unless you come up with ways of colocating all of an individual’s data on a single tape; a simple trawl could send a tape-robot into melt down. Now 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.

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

So funnily enough…tape, the medium that wouldn’t die 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 time and mourn it little..

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

 

 


  • Gary Hocking @PublicCloudGuy

    Insightful post Martin (as usual). I believe the key decision point for enterprises related to where their data should live is determined by the value they attribute to it, in particular their non-current (“old” is such a 1990′s term) data.
    If they determine that all data has value and that value needs to be exploited for their commercial or competitive gain then having it on tape is counter-productive. Leveraging contemporary analytics tools for trending, buying behaviour, customer loyalty etc necessitates that the data be readily available in digital format for on-demand use. Cloning of data repositories for this purpose obviously assists with this objective………providing the data is on a disk, or as you assert, SSD platform.

    To highlight this point in presentations I often use an example of the value Amazon (the retail arm) places on non-current data for commercial differentiation. They have a feature which will pause a transaction if you are attempting to buy an item you have purchased previously. In the example I use, a transaction is attempted of a book that was previously purchased in 1997. Sure enough, in the blink of an eye, the warning message comes up that this book had been previously purchased. This is a perfect example of the value Amazon attributes to non-current data. It promotes customer intimacy aka personalisation and promotes customer loyalty (they don’t just want my money if it means I have made a purchasing mistake). It is hard to imagine that this immediate interaction is achievable if the data resides on any other platform than disk or SSD. Many would argue that 16 year old data has no value and therefore should be sent off to a tape repository (never to be heard of again) but this example demonstrates why that logic might be flawed.
    Big data, contemporary analytics capabilities and associated data-driven competitive advantage requirements dictate that all data has a value. Extracting that value quickly and effectively is the determining factor in the tape Vs disk debate and provides a clear winner. It is not a debate about the technology per se.