Image: IBM Research

Tape storage leaders say their favorite technology isn’t dead and is actually getting healthier.

Pause for Monty Python jokes, but a recent wave of engineering may give the stalwart technology many more years of real-world usefulness.

It’s not just straightforward capacity increases. High-end drives are commercially available from Oracle and IBM at 8.5 TB and 10 TB, respectively, while IBM and Sony each recently announced laboratory experiments in the mind-boggling 200 TB range.

The latest advancements focus on making tape smarter. Most notable in this trend is the Linear Tape File System (LTFS), demonstrated by IBM in prototype form seven years ago. LTFS is now becoming a mainstream technology supported in the industry-standard Linear Tape-Open (LTO) format and in proprietary enterprise systems; it allows tape data to be read as just another drive on a network. Call it the T: drive if you like; its point is to make the media irrelevant to the application using it.

IBM’s Shawn Brume, who manages the disaster recovery business for Big Blue, said the industry’s LTO organization is also excited about new intelligence in the LTO-7 format. LTO-7 is expected to roll out in products starting this fall, while LTO-8, -9, and -10 were all previously roadmappped for more capacity and speed. What’s different about LTO-7 is a new feature called Extended Copy, Brume explained. It’s borrowed from the SCSI standard and lets administrators save time by copying information directly between drives without involving the host.

It’s equally important to ensure the quality of the data itself, Brume said. Oracle’s Tom Wultich, senior director of tape product management, cited several recent efforts for that cause.

In the past, “If something went wrong, is it the drive or the media? There weren’t many tools in the industry to do that,” Wultich explained. Companies had to schedule regular visits from service technicians to check that tapes were still good. Now, “The drive knows a lot about that piece of media on every mount, when it does a read or a write,” he said. Before, “The tape drives knew all that, they just weren’t telling anybody.”

Wultich explained how modern libraries can notify administrations about the results of tape analytic tests. For example, software can test the readability of any tape that hasn’t been touched by its robot in 180 days, put aside cartridges that fail the test, and send a report to the library’s humans or to another layer of storage management software.

“The goal is to try to get things fixed before they actually break,” Wultich explained. He and Brume both noted that tape libraries now perform cyclical redundancy checks. Oracle sees the cloud as a challenge left to conquer, with an archive-centric cloud being farther down the chain of tiered storage so that even tape has a backup. But mostly, for tape intelligence, he said the industry is nearing the end of a successful cycle. “I think we took care of the big things,” Wultich said.

In a twist of irony, such measures of capacity and intelligence could extend the life of the tape storage industry beyond that of disk. Dave Woiti, who directs the Information Storage Industry Consortium, made the modest proposal — but he’s serious about it.

It’s an eye-opening possibility. He observed that given the recent trend of flash memory arrays nibbling at disk array installations, the increased challenges of making hard disks bigger, cheaper, or faster, and tape’s surprisingly significant room for capacity growth, it could be disk — not tape — that eventually dies first. Data centers of the future could have solid-state storage up front and reeled magnetic tape behind, all wrapped in a cloud.

Statistics from 50,000 feet paint a different picture. “Total spending on the tape drive and automation market has been contracting for some time,” most recently dipping from worldwide revenue of $1.398 billion in 2013 to $1.307 billion in 2014, Gartner storage analyst Laura DuBois said. Some growth from cloud storage providers is an exception, she said.

However, in the trenches, storage architect Alex Jacocks said he agrees with Woito’s prediction. He observed disk array budgets shrinking and flash installations increasing while leading the storage team in a recent Washington, D.C.-area job.

“I’ve been doing storage for almost 20 years. The amount of traditional disk that is being bought is dropping,” Jacocks said.

Physically smaller libraries, shorter times between LTO generations, easier-to-use administrative software, and upgradeable library network interfaces are all on Jacocks’ wish list. But he’s still a supporter of the legacy technology. Disk arrays require a substantial amount of cooling, energy, and rack space, he noted. “The best thing about tape,” he said, “is you can stick it on a shelf.”

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Tape isn't dying — it's getting healthier and smarter