For years analysts have predicted that tape will die a natural death as disk and other forms of storage take its place. Sales figures and the ambitions of the vendors who manufacture tape-based storage products are both evidence that tape lives and even -- concede some analysts -- continues to be crucial to some customers' storage strategy.
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Its role may be shrinking, in an evolving storage environment in which customers have to cut their costs and infrastructure, and maintain service levels while applying compliance rules to ever-increasing piles of data. But it hasn't gone away.
"The big advantage of tape is that its portable, but I would say we are using 30% to 40% less tape than we used to five years ago," said Gavin Rosenberg, sales and marketing director at systems integrator Sunstar Company, Inc.
According to Rosenberg, companies that used to back up data on tape are now using disk, which customers feel handles disaster recovery and restoration of data better.
Rosenberg also said tape is still very popular at universities, government departments and large corporations that transfer data from disk to disk and then to tape.
"These institutions are purchasing a lot more of their secondary or tertiary storage, and they are keeping their older tape libraries; but disaster recovery has really pushed disk even more than tape." Rosenberg said. "I don't think tape is dead, but I think tape is a struggle right now."
Companies like IBM and Sun Microsystems say they are firmly dedicated to tape and intend to use tape as part of an ongoing storage strategy moving forward.
"They've been saying tape is dying for about the last 30 years; it must be a very slow death," said Bruce Master IBM's senior program manager for worldwide tape storage systems marketing at IBM. "We are definitely in the tape business, which has been growing for us these last five years."
IBM's tape sales have been growing especially in the midrange market, he said. There has been a surge in use at the high end of the enterprise storage market as well, he said
Disk also uses more electricity and is harder to expand than an existing tape library, Master said.
"If I increase the capacity, typically, of a tape library I simply add more cartridges," Master said. Extra cartridges require no additional cooling – and therefore little additional power – and don't usually take more space because a library is normally not filled at the time of purchase, he said.
To meet high-end storage needs IBM offers products like the TS7700 virtualization engine, which automatically caches the data onto disk and copies it to tape and then duplicates that data to a customer's secondary site without changing software codes. Another offering is the TS1120 encrypting tape drive for customers that want to protect their data.
Sun Microsystems is also doing a robust business in tape, according to Amy O'Connor, Sun's senior director of strategy. To increase data security on tape, Sun recently introduced encryption for data stored on tape.
"The need to retain data for many decades has caused us to see more demand for tape in many segments," O'Connor said.
The market for virtual tape libraries (VTL) -- which use hard drives and server engines to emulate tape drives or libraries -- have advanced both the technology and the lifespan of tape, according to IDC storage analyst Robert Amatruda.
Rather than replace tape installations, many customers are augmenting them with VTLs, especially in large open-system and in mainframe environments, where tape is still valued as a backup and archive medium.
"At the end of the day you are going to find that customers who do employ virtual tape in many cases still support physical tape or real tape on the back end because they still need to archive and safeguard that data for regulatory reasons," Amatruda said.
Amatruda also said that while the use of tape drives, attached to a single server is in decline, the use of tape libraries as a shared resource is actually growing.
"With the advent of [storage area networks (SAN)], even with the greater integration of disk in terms of data protection, tape is still a critical component of the infrastructure," Amatruda said.
IDC's estimates that total 2006 revenue for VTL systems will exceed $650 million and uncompressed capacity will total more than 99,000 TB. The research firm also expects the vast majority of the revenue and capacity growth to come from open system VTLs.
Still, some VARs are not convinced that evolving technology improves tape's chances.
"While today I believe tape is still an integral part of most IT infrastructures, the management, consumables and vaulting costs are prompting many organizations to investigate technologies with the hope of reducing their dependency on traditional tape technology and improving SLAs," according to Richard Bocchinfuso, vice president and chief technology officer for MTI Technology, Inc., a storage distributor for EMC.
Bocchinfuso expects vendors whose thriving tape businesses are fundamental to their hardware sales -- such as IBM and Sun Microsystems/StorageTek -- will continue to promote and evangelize the value of tape; but he's not convinced that their view tells the whole story.
It would be naive to assume that in the next five to 10 years there will not be game-changing technologies that arise that will affect the need for traditional tape.
"MTI does sell a fair amount of tape, but the amount of tape technology is declining due to the deployment of alternative technologies such as SnapShots, virtual tape, content-addressable storage, data deduplication and enterprise wide archiving strategies," Bocchinfuso said. "Our backup and recovery business is growing, but the platform is no longer tape only," Bocchinfuso said.
Still, IDC's Amatruda urges systems integrators not to dismiss the opportunities tape affords in providing storage solutions.
"Tape actually adds a lot of margin dollars to the value added reseller. They gain more money from consulting upon deployment, adding more capacity, adding more drives or scaling the library up," Amatruda said. "Tape has actually been a very good revenue contributor."