In the era of big data, magnetic tape will play a vital role in fulfilling the need for nearline and archival storage solutions.

The Storage Gap
The world’s data storage needs are increasing—rapidly. According to a report by IDC the amount of global data produced annually in 2020 is around 50 zettabytes (50 trillion gigabytes). This demand is expected to more than triple in just five years, with the annual datasphere expanding to 175 zettabytes in 2025. That’s an incredible rate of growth, but not surprising given the ever-increasing number of Internet users generating data and end devices collecting it. The steady rollout of the Internet of Things and its massive networks of data-collecting devices will also ensure this growth will continue apace.

However, traditional hard disks drives (HDDs) will not be able to meet this growing demand, due to manufacturing limitations, the physical limitations of the technology, their reliability, and cost. This isn’t a projection; it’s already occurring. According to Seagate, in 2019, there was demand for 30,800 exabytes of storage space, but only 19,800 exabytes were supplied, a 43-percent gap. This year, the gap is expected to grow to 53 percent. One big problem is that we are beginning to reach the capacity ceiling for traditional HDDs. In fact, the recent gains we have seen in hard disk storage space are largely the result of finding ways to cram more platters and drive heads into the same form factor or bolstering its storage space with supplemental solid-state memory.

Solid-state drives (SSD) are a growing storage segment that offers larger capacities, but their higher cost per terabyte makes them prohibitively expensive for large deployments. While SSDs will have their place in helping close the storage gap—especially in situations in which data needs to be accessed often, thanks to its high data throughput—they are not a feasible solution for storing the mounds of data that will be generated but rarely accessed. For example, many industries are beholden to regulations that require businesses to store records for certain periods of time (or even indefinitely in some case). The medical field is especially subject to tight guidelines requiring the archival of patient information. With more and more data continually accumulating and restrictions in place that prevent its deletion, you can see how trying to keep up with ballooning storage requirements using SSDs—or even HDDs, for that matter—simply doesn’t make economical sense. This leaves us with a critical need for a storage option that provides enough space to keep up with rising demand without breaking the bank.

The Role of Magnetic Tape
This is where magnetic tape storage enters the picture. But to quote the immortal words of LL Cool J, “don’t call it a comeback,” tape’s been here for years. Those of a certain age will undoubtably be familiar with the technology from its use in VHS and audio cassettes, but they might be unaware of its vital role in our current data storage paradigm. This oversight is understandable, as magnetic tape storage has advanced by leaps and bounds since its mainstream consumer breakthrough in the 1980s. The current leading tape data storage format is called Linear Tape-Open (LTO), which was created in the late ‘90s by the LTO Consortium, a group comprising IBM, HP, and Quantum. The LTO format is considerably more advanced than the tape storage technology that came before it, offering much larger storage capacities by volume and faster throughput.

The current generation of the format is LTO-8, which offers 12 terabytes of uncompressed storage or 30 terabytes of compressed storage per tape cartridge. But the technology has by no means reached its peak. The LTO Consortium has issued a roadmap for the next four generations of the format, each offering greater storage capacities than the last. LTO-12, for example, is forecast to provide storage for up to 192 terabytes of uncompressed data and a whopping 480 terabytes of compressed data. A beneficial side effect of this increased storage is that as the data density of each cartridge goes up, so too does the speed at which the tape can be read/written to. This means that not only does LTO wipe the floor with other storage media alternatives in terms of total capacity and price per terabyte, its throughput speed gap is diminishing, opening it up to a wider variety of uses, which we will discuss in greater detail later on.

Archival Applications
Now that we have briefly outlined tape’s capabilities, its unique role in closing the storage gap begins to materialize. The first set of applications we’ll discuss is one that is perhaps most traditionally associated with tape—the storage of archival data. This refers to data that is preserved, but is expected to be accessed extremely rarely, such as the aforementioned medical records. In this function, tape is particularly useful when storing sequential data, such as audio or video files, as the head of the tape drive only needs to make one pass to write or read the entire file, minimizing access time. This makes it a great solution for storing audio and video not just from traditional media organizations, but for emerging applications like police body cams, CCTV, surveillance video, drone footage, or any number of applications. Especially in our current climate, being able to turn to archived footage from these sources for later review can help provide empirical evidence to uncover the truth in ambiguous situations.

Capacity aside, tape has a number of other features that make it ideal for archival data storage. Unlike hard disks—which need to spin constantly, even when not in use—tape is static when not being accessed, meaning it is not consuming power nor incurring wear and tear through constant operation. This saves money in the long run by reducing energy costs and minimizing failures. Tape cartridges can also easily be removed from a library and stored at a separate location. LTO tape supports write once, read many (WORM) technology to let users ensure that once data is saved onto a tape, it can’t accidentally be lost by being written over. This ease of use and security, coupled with a lifespan that can maintain data integrity for 30 years (much longer than any alternative besides optical), makes tape the ideal low-cost, reliable data archival solution.

Nearline Applications
As mentioned, in part due to increases in LTO media data density, tape libraries now offer fast enough throughput speeds to expand their range of uses to more nearline applications. Like archival data, nearline data falls under the umbrella of persistent data—that which is stored but accessed infrequently. If we imagine archival data as the least accessed side of the persistent data spectrum, nearline would be at the opposite end, requiring occasional, but not frequent, access.

A great example of a nearline application for a tape library system is as a backup solution for a business’s critical data. In the event of a cyberattack or other catastrophe in which data is lost, a tape backup—which is decoupled from the data source and therefore secure from attack—can be used to quickly restore a large amount of data. The best part is, since you are in physical possession of your own data, you’re safe from extortion by some less-than-scrupulous data backup services, which often charge fees to expedite data recovery. As the storage shortfall grows and tape latency decreases, LTO will step up to fill more of these nearline roles.

Closing the Gap
The tape market looks to be poised for continued growth as it fills the gap between expanding storage needs and the limited supply and prohibitive costs of alternate storage media. By some estimates, about 95 percent of data is never accessed again 90 days after it is recorded. That’s a lot of persistent data! Given these statistics, tape is really the only cost-effective answer to storing the increasingly massive amounts of data we generate every day, but infrequently access. Now let’s close that gap!

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