Tape storage finds new life in the enterprise and beyond

On location in Africa, a movie crew wraps up the day’s shooting on a nature documentary and camera operators shut down their rigs. NAND flash cards are removed from the cameras and the scenes that were just shot are transferred to another medium for delivery to a post-production facility. Magnetic tape, the oldest form of storage in digital computing, goes to work.

Long considered slow and outdated, tape is holding on in many enterprises that need cost-effective, long-term storage, and it’s even finding new applications in the virtualized and increasingly video-centric world of IT.

Despite declining shipments of equipment over the past several years, tape is increasingly important in some environments, especially large organizations that deal with mountains of information. The relic isn’t as obsolete as it seemed.

“A lot of that stigma actually isn’t as true as it used to be,” Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) analyst Jason Buffington says. Tape technology is getting faster, it’s more economical than hard disk drives (HDDs) and it has a smaller carbon footprint because it requires less power, he says.

As enterprises deal with bigger sets of data and choose or are forced to retain more of it for many years, tape will play an even more vital role, Buffington says.

Fewer Tapes, But Bigger Data

“The more data you have, and the more strategic you are about managing storage, the higher the likelihood is that you are going to continue, if not increase, your footprint on tape,” Buffington said. Though overall sales of tape products continue to fall, individual deployments are getting bigger, according to industry analysts.

Nature documentary crews in Africa and Antarctica, among other video teams, have used tape to handle the massive video files that come out of their productions. Now that movies are shot with digital cameras, there’s no sending film reels in to be developed and edited, or even scanned for digital editing. Crews use tape for its reliability, the ease of transporting it without fat wide-area network pipes, and the security of physical media, according to Sanjay Tripathi, director and business line executive at IBM’s System & Technology Group, Storage Platform.

After the tapes from each day’s shooting are sent to the studio or remote production facility, the footage is transferred onto HDDs for editing, then put back on tape as the movie goes on to other production steps. Video is storage-heavy: A feature-length 3-D movie can add up to 4PB or 5PB of data, Tripathi says.

IBM even shared an Emmy award with Fox Broadcasting for developing a workflow that includes offloading content to tape. But in less glamorous settings, tape is stepping in to solve many other storage problems, analysts say.

Data has been stored on magnetic tape since the time of the earliest digital computers in the early 1950s. As HDDs grew in capacity and shrank in price, IT shops started using them for backup instead of tape. That trend continues.

“Tape’s been under a lot of pressure in the enterprise,” IDC analyst Robert Amatruda says.