Rediscovering tape storage: The unconventional innovation for modern data challenges

Rediscovering tape storage: The unconventional innovation for modern data challenges

Matt Ninesling, Senior Director of Tape Portfolio Management, Spectra Logic, highlights the secure and sustainable nature of tape storage and why its steady resurgence shouldn’t be ignored amid data explosion requirements.

Matt Ninesling, Senior Director of Tape Portfolio Management, Spectra Logic

Data is relentlessly expanding and is slated to reach a staggering 175+ zettabytes by 2025. The unprecedented storm of data generation in recent years has left many organisations seeking more scalable and cost-effective storage solutions. Amid this data deluge, traditional tape storage technology has always provided safe harbour, offering unparalleled advantages in scalability, security and sustainability. But through recent innovation and adaptability, modern tape storage solutions are helping organisations navigate the ocean of data to be protected and preserved in new ways.

From humble beginnings as magnetic tape reels in the early days of computing, tape technology has undergone a transformation, evolving in formulations, read/write mechanisms and storage densities. Today, as a testament to its resilience and adaptability, tape remains a cornerstone in long-term data retention and security.

Tape meets growing AI storage demands

One of the key drivers behind the resurgence of tape technology is its inherent ability to accommodate vast volumes of information, making it an ideal storage solution for Artificial Intelligence (AI) initiatives. Multi-petabyte archives are becoming standard as AI increasingly drives every aspect of business, research and development. Modern Linear Tape-Open (LTO) technology, for instance, offers up to 19TB of data storage per cartridge in its latest generation. Moreover, offerings such as IBM’s TS1170 take it a step further, providing 50TB of native storage capacity and up to 150TB of compressed format capacity per cartridge.

When compared to other storage methods such as disk and cloud, tape not only maintains its cost-competitive edge but is also the dominant leader in affordability due to new developments in tape density.

While disk-based storage systems cater to the instantaneous demands of real-time operations, tape’s role as a secondary or tertiary storage tier meets the need to store AI training data and outputs for the long term. Preservation of training data is crucial given recent lawsuits over the use of copyrighted materials for AI models and defamation litigation in response to false information generated by AI chatbots. 

Moreover, these long-term archives must be accessible and searchable. The introduction of S3-compatible object-based tape makes today’s tape technology the ideal building block for such archives. Object-based tape is highly scalable, searchable and can even be tagged for future retrieval. 

In the case of catastrophic data loss or corruption, AI training data archived on tape provides for a reliable means of recovery. Tape can be stored offline, making it less susceptible to accidental deletions through true air-gapped protection. Archiving AI training data on tape also ensures data remains intact and can be successfully retrieved if, and when, it is needed.

The role of tape in cybersecurity

Another significant factor propelling the resurgence of tape technology is the escalating importance of data security. Amid the increasing frequency and sophistication of ransomware attacks, tape’s offline nature provides a robust defence, making it an invaluable asset across diverse sectors.

AI is expected to heighten the near-term impact of the global ransomware threat. Over the next two years, organisations can expect with an almost certain likelihood that AI will increase the volume and impact of cyberattacks, as reported by the UK’s National Security Centre. As threat actors are able to analyse exfiltrated data faster and more effectively, the assessment predicts they will use this data to train AI models to enhance existing tactics, techniques and procedures.

Tape storage technology, with its air-gapped nature, provides the most resilient layer of protection against such threats, ensuring that the data remains secure and accessible in the event of an attack. Modern tape solutions that incorporate an object storage interface are particularly useful as a secondary storage target for S3-compatible applications. A mainspring of modern data protection, object-based tape allows organisations to maintain traditional methods of backup while simultaneously deploying S3-compatible applications in a single infrastructure. The technology is often seen in large backup environments leveraging cloud-based APIs, where tape serves as a cost-effective repository for storing cold data at scale.

Tape as a pillar of compliance

Compliance with long-term retention requirements is crucial for businesses today. The focus is on ensuring that records, whether related to architecture or performance, can withstand the test of time and iterations.

Mandates for compliance are typically instated by top-level executives such as a compliance officer, CIO, or security manager. These mandates may involve the retention of critical records, especially for industries where changes to formulations or architectures need to be preserved for legal reasons. For example, companies like Coca-Cola will often implement long-term data retention mandates to preserve previous formulations offline and protected, ensuring records can be accessed into the future in the event of litigation but remain shielded from unauthorised access.

The decision to retain data for an extended period is not arbitrary; it involves evaluating the value of the data to the company. The length of retention is directly proportional to the significance and utility of the data for the business.

Tape’s longevity makes it the ideal technology for retaining data for extended periods. The advantages of tape storage include Write Once Read Many (WORM) functionality, air-gapped security and the ability to be taken offsite for added protection. Furthermore, to ensure minimal data degradation over time, modern tape offerings feature greater data integrity and reliability by incorporating error correction codes and automated data integrity verification checks.

Sustainability in data storage

The energy consumption of data centres is a pressing global concern, with data centres consuming approximately 200 terawatt-hours of electricity annually. Tape storage’s minimal power consumption and reduced cooling requirements provide a more sustainable alternative to disk-based storage systems, delivering significant savings in electricity usage and contributing to a reduction in CO2 emissions.

Tape technology’s durability and cost-effectiveness make it an attractive proposition for organisations seeking long-term data retention solutions that are not only reliable and secure but also environmentally friendly.

The road ahead

Tape storage technology’s adaptability, resilience and enduring relevance make it a worthy contender in the data storage arena. Moreover, when it comes to storing large amounts of infrequently accessed data for the long term, tape is in fact the undeniable leader. Whether it’s managing the surge of Big Data, safeguarding against cybersecurity threats, ensuring regulatory compliance, or championing sustainability, tape storage continues to thrive, demonstrating its timeless value.

The horizon promises even more sophisticated tape solutions, hinting at greater storage capacities, enhanced data transfer speeds and strengthened data integrity checks. Modern tape storage technology, with its ability to complement big data analytics, fortify cybersecurity defences, meet compliance mandates and contribute to a greener planet, underscores a compelling truth – sometimes, the tried-and-true ways prove to be the most successful.

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