22 February, 2023

Tape is dead. Long live Tape

Disk, you spin me right round.            Tape, dead or alive?

This blog is the second in the series that is going to touch on some of the questions raised after Gavin Free (of The Slow Mo Guys) published a video talking about his struggle to secure 10 years of video content, and how he turned to Symply and LTO to help solve this challenge.  

Our first blog in the series “Death, Taxes and Data Loss” discussed the general need for data protection, along with the differences between backup and archive and why they are equally important, if a little confused sometimes.  In this blog we are going to look at data tape as one of the most cost effective, robust and efficient long term solutions for data protection, after which we are going to dispel the myth perpetuated by flash and hard drive manufacturers that tape is dead.

Let's start with a brief history of LTO, or to give it its full title Linear Tape Open, sometimes also referred to as LTO Ultrium.  It is a magnetic data tape technology that was originally developed in the late 1990s through a joint initiative between IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Seagate Technology, to be an open format, optimized for high capacity, storage density and performance.  

First launched in 2000, LTO-1 had, wait for it…, a staggering capacity of 100GB per cartridge, which does not sound a lot, but was at least double the size of most hard disks drives at the time.  Fast forward to 2021 when LTO-9 was released, with a native capacity of 18TB (45TB compressed) on a tape.  This compares well to the current generation of hard drives, especially when considering the costs.  At the time of writing this (February 2023), it is about $145 for an LTO-9 tape, with a 18TB USB hard drive priced around $320.

LTO technology is continually advanced by 30 companies including IBM Corporation, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Quantum, who are part of the LTO Program.  The fact that it is an open format, and licensed by some of the most prominent names in the storage industry, ensures that there is a broad range of compatible tape drives and carriages.  To date approximately 5.6 million drives, 351,732,245 cartridges and some 370,870 Billion GB of media capacity have been shipped (according to the LTO.org).  It is therefore no wonder that LTO has become so widely adopted and is extensively used across many industries for backup and archive… What format do you think the hyperscale public cloud providers store data on long term?

Recently, new generations have been introduced to the LTO roadmap, with a path to LTO-14, that will have a native capacity of 576TB per data cartridge, some 32 times greater than the current generation of LTO-9.  

What's more, these high capacities are not just wishful thinking on the part of the LTO consortium in their war against hard drive capacities.  This technology has actually already been demonstrated in the lab by Fujifilm and IBM, where they achieved a capacity of 580TB, equating to a areal density on tape of 317Gbit/sq inch back in 2020.  Let's consider that the current 18TB hard drive features a density of approximately 1022 Gbit/sq inch versus the LTO-9 cartridge that has a density of only 12Gbit/sq inch.  Put simply, means that an LTO-9 tape can achieve the same capacity with only 1/85th of the areal density than that of the same capacity hard disk.  This is why it is possible for LTO technology to keep increasing capacity at historical rates, with capacity doubling every generation (see LTO roadmap).  

Density per square inch is a bit geeky, we admit, but demonstrates the significant difference between the ability of a hard disk to store information, with that of LTO.  Hard disk manufacturers have been stuck at a data density of approximately 1022 Gbit/sq inch for many years now. They have employed technologies, such as SMR, to increase capacities by 10% or so on the same disk platters, but it is new technologies, such as HAMR (Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording) which are being pioneered by Seagate, that look set to deliver 30TB + hard drives in the not too distant future, with the potential for 200TB + hard drive available sometime in the mid 2030s… right around the time a 576TB LTO tape is predicted to be available.  We cannot know for sure, but LTO looks set to win the capacity trophy over the next decade or so.

The question of total cost of ownership is obviously not as simple as comparing the cost of an LTO-9 data cartridge with that of an 18TB USB drive, as you will need an LTO drive to get data on to the tape, which requires an upfront investment. To make a commercial decision you should consider the amount of data you need to secure and for what period of time, taking into account the best practice 3-2-1 Data Protection Strategy.  Public cloud is certainly another option, making up part of a robust data protection strategy, indeed there will be a blog on the subject from us in the near future.  We were going to crunch the numbers comparing LTO to public cloud, and put together some great graphs, but our valued partners at Archiware got their first and saved us a lot of time (thanks to David Fox and the team). 

For more information check out their article, but spoiler alert… LTO compares rather well to public cloud.  https://blog.archiware.com/blog/comparison-of-lto-and-cloud-storage-costs-for-media-archive/

In summary, we have demonstrated how LTO can be an integral piece in any robust data protection strategy, supporting both backup and archive usage models.  This blog has shown that tape is far from dead, indeed is likely to win the capacity arms race between HDDs and LTO in the next decade or so.  The cost of adoption of LTO can be problematic for some customers, but if you are looking to protect 150TB to 200TB per year, over a 3 year plus time frame, then LTO should definitely be a consideration, but other factors such as compliance, governance and data sovereignty may dramatically reduce the starting point for many organizations.

In the last blog of this series, we are going to look at the longevity and reliability of LTO when compared to hard disk based solutions.

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