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Dinosaurs and Tape Based Backup Storage Systems

360 IT : 07 September, 2010  (Special Report)
Jon Mills of Sepaton explains how intelligent disk storage systems are higher up the evolutionary ladder than tape storage systems, drawing analogies with the Tyrannosaurus Rex
Many businesses know that tape is the dinosaur of business continuity solutions, but find the idea of replacing their legacy backup systems with disk arrays too intimidating. In this article, Jon Mills, managing director of Sepaton, dons his paleontologist's hat, digs out his magnifying glass, and compares tape to Tyrannosaurus Rex to encourage anyone that doesn't see the need to evolve their backup to reconsider their plans.

At first you may not think there are any similarities between Tyrannosaurus Rex and storage tapes: one is a carnivore that died out at the end of the Cretaceous period, the other is a magnetic medium for high capacity data storage. Yet the features of each mean that they face an evolutionary dead-end and replacement by nimbler, more adaptable, alternatives. Let's look at some of the things they have in common:

#1 Limited evolution - Tyrannosaurus roamed the earth for up to two million years at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 65 million years ago. Magnetic tape has been used in the same way for data storage for more than five decades. While age itself is no failing, aging without evolving means you are not responding to your environment and cannot react to changes or adapt to survive.

Meanwhile, intelligent disk-based backup technologies, such a virtual tape libraries (VTLs) have evolved dramatically in the past decade to equal and better the data protection of tape at a price point equal to, or often less than, traditional tape-based back-up.

#2 They're unsteady - T Rex weighed in at between 5.5 to over 7 metric tons. Its build, including its 'signature' short arms and large head meant it could sustain serious injury on falling.

Backing up data to physical tape requires time and IT staff attention. It's not only time consuming and costly; because it's based on manual processes, backup is risky with tapes and the data itself is vulnerable to mechanical failures, human error, theft and damage throughout the backup lifecycle.

By comparison, disk-based backup solutions are inherently more secure than tapes. The technology stripes data across multiple disks to deliver hack-proof security as well as full failover capabilities within a disaster recovery strategy. VTLs also protect data from unrecoverable losses by eliminating the risk of failed backups or defective media.

#3 They're slow, and unable to compete with faster-moving replacements - It may be one of the longest-running debates in paleontology, but due to its build and physiology it's widely thought that T. Rex was limited to a speed of around 25 miles per hour, possibly less.

Tape is not fast. It's common for tape-based backups to take longer than the overnight backup window and for restoration of data from tape to require several hours or even days, well beyond the recovery time objectives of most businesses. Meanwhile, writing to disk is fast. De-duplication technology reduces the total 'mass' of the backup and doing it all on-the-fly reduces backup times to as fast as 1 TB per hour per port (16TB per hour in the fastest appliances) for disk compared to 1/3 TB per hour per drive. Advanced disk-based backup solutions, such as VTLs, cuts backup and recovery times, reduce media costs and dramatically improve backup performance.

#4 A long, heavy tail - All the tape cartridge processes: the mechanical arms, the conveyor belts, the labelling, deciding on an off-site storage strategy, loading, unloading, driving them around or waiting for a white van to collect, or even posting them. This is the long, heavy tail of tape - writing the data to tape is only the beginning. VTLs and disk-based backup technologies however have no long heavy tail, providing a far more agile solution that saves organizations time and money.

#5 Slow to change direction - T Rex had rotational inertia due to its centre of gravity, so could not change direction fast. A tape-based backup system has a strong linear direction that means organizations can't change direction easily. Disk-based virtual tape appliances are highly adaptable systems as drop-in replacements for tape racks, and once you have a disk array many evolutionary tracks present themselves: de-duplication, virtualization, off-site-over-fibre backup, security policies and data silos for cloud architectures, scalability (both up and down), and speed increases for seek and restore.

#6 Can't grab - T Rex's forearms are one of its most obvious features, with an almost comedic reach. Tape's weak little forearms can't grab all that data rushing towards it at fibre-channel speeds and can't wrestle it down into manageable form. While a VTL with fibre channel and intelligent de-duplication and scalable server architecture can grab as much data as you can throw at it.


65 million years ago a meteor the size of Manhattan hit the earth, changing the climate and ending the dinosaurs' reign. Like missing data in a tape-based backup, the dinosaurs have gone forever. Yet both T Rex and tape had their place in evolution, stepping stones to advances for coping with a challenging environment. While T. Rex is now confined to museums, television and books, physical tape storage still has a place, as an efficient means to archive long-term data.

The Age of the Mammals inherited the dinosaurs' legacy. In the world of storage, virtual tape libraries and disk to disk technologies have been proven to be the intelligent choice for protecting legacy investment, decreasing backup and restore times, and deploying a nimble infrastructure that can store more data at lower cost and for longer periods of time. These new technologies emulate existing physical tape libraries without disrupting current backup and restore infrastructure or policies. On top of that, return on investment is increased because current assets are better utilized and there is a seamless and cost-effective scalability to address rapid data growth.

So, isn't it time your storage infrastructure evolved?

Sepaton is exhibiting at 360°IT, the IT Infrastructure Event held 22nd - 23rd September 2010, at Earl's Court, London. The event provides an essential road map of technologies for the management and development of a flexible, secure and dynamic IT infrastructure.
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