Want to move from tape to disk-based backups but don't think the TCO stacks up?

A Q&A with Ian Thompson, Head of Data Services at Assured Data Protection


Tape is huge topic in the IT world at the moment – has the current crisis highlighted the need to move to disk-based backup?

Yes, I think the situation with Covid-19 has really highlighted this. We could never have predicted this situation and whilst people have no option but to work from home it has not been possible to manually get into the office to check their tapes. We have also seen protests around the world in recent months resulting in extensive damage to some data environments – so some businesses have experienced the need for Disaster Recovery on top of Disaster Recovery. You couldn't make that up, but these things happen.

The main issue at the moment is that tape requires manual handling every day. It's also a drain on the business in terms of time and money, and I think the current climate is making everyone rethink their backup strategy.

If you've got a tape-based solution in place you've got a real business risk at the moment.

What are the main issues with tape?

20 years ago, tapes were still very much the norm. A recent study found that an estimated 50% of businesses are still using tape for their data backups.

Technologies have moved on hugely for other industries, for example, audio. Cassette tapes moved on to CDs, MP3 players, iPods and so on. Now it's all about streaming. But the weird thing about backup is that actually tapes have been dominant for a much longer length of time. People seem to struggle to make that leap to a more modern and more digital technology.

With tape, you could you could arrive at work in the morning to find that you've got a problem with your backups. This could be for many reasons, potentially because of the tape failing, the tape running out of space, the tape jamming, the tape not rewinding properly, the heads needing cleaning on the tape… There are lots of reasons why the tape itself could have been the cause of the backup failure.

Tapes can snap, they can deteriorate, and you've got to rewind them, and fast forward to get to the bit you want. So, it's got all the same disadvantages, literally, of what the old cassette tapes and videotapes used to have. And that's half the problem: the access times are very, very slow.

Also, if you put data onto a tape then store it for 10 years you've got to make sure you keep hold of a tape drive of that model that can read those tapes as technology moves on. So, if your tapes are an old standard that aren't used anymore, you've got to keep and maintain a drive that can actually read those.

Another problem with tapes is you can't readily read them back and check that they're okay. With technology like Rubrik, because they're all disk based, they can essentially double check the data and ensure everything is in order. They all have levels of data protection built into them so that if there is a bad piece of data, they can essentially repair it from other parts of the disk, and that's a continuous process that goes on in the background. The problem with the tape is that you're running the risk that actually if there was a problem with that tape, you're never going to know about until it's too late.

Is there a security issue with tape?

Since GDPR came in in 2018, data security has become a more pressing issue for many companies. 

If you are storing customer databases, email addresses, contact information and credit card details, these tapes could be extremely valuable in the wrong hands. It's imperative that they don't get lost. The idea of storing in an insecure environment starts to look very unappealing versus the concerns.

You can of course store data with a third party, but it doesn't guarantee that there wouldn’t be an error somewhere resulting in the loss of a tape. It is very difficult to track and trace the data when you're effectively duplicating copies of it. You could potentially have dozens or hundreds of copies of your data floating around and it is very difficult to say with absolute certainty that you know exactly where every one of them is. Security is quite a concern with tape, and they are typically backed up using only a handful of different tape technologies. You could encrypt the data, but it is very rarely done with tape.

What is your opinion on the cost of upgrading VS risk of not upgrading?

At what point do you give up spending money to protect against eventualities that can't be seen? First of all, you consider protecting against losing a disk on the server, then against losing the server. Next you might think about protecting against losing everything in that rack, then against losing the whole building. Potentially, you might think about losing that local post code, that town, that city, that county, that country. At what point do you stop pushing things further afield and try to mitigate against everything? There's a cost versus risk ultimately.

Is anyone still suited to tape?

This is very difficult to answer. Tape is extremely cheap by volume, in terms of the per-terabyte cost and you can't argue against that. But you have to consider the labour-intensive management cost of that data.

20 years ago, people might have accepted the company might go offline for a day or two and lose 24 hours’ worth of data. This is not accepted anymore. Companies are expected to be up and running 24/7/365. I also think I think attitudes have changed from a consumer standpoint in terms of what people expect and how they expect their data to be protected. Every company now has the responsibility to protect the data.

So could I ever recommend tape? I don't think I could. I don't think there'd be a suitable fit for it even if you have multiple terabytes of data. While it might be cheaper to put it on tape, the main cost of managing large volumes of data is incredibly high.

There is an argument that the cost of tape vs disk is swings and roundabouts and my thoughts on it are this: yes, the tapes are cheap. Great. But then you have to buy tape drives and some form of hardware maintenance. You'll also need software and agents to run all of that. You’ll also need to pay to store these tapes. With all this taken into account, what's your recovery time? This could be days plus a retrieval cost. 

How is Rubrik disk-based backup different and what are the advantages?

Our Rubrik service for example, takes care of just about everything. It is fully automated, incremental forever, SLA driven, completely resilient and can replicate offsite. It tiers data to different locations for maximum storage efficiency and is incredibly fast to use. There are no moving parts that are prone to failure, and server class hardware protects against a rare disk or PSU failure. You can perform multiple backups and / or restores concurrently, with no need to consider tape capacity or location. Also, the recoveries for single files, and whole servers are virtually instant. It ticks all the boxes that tapes struggle with and that's why is it is such a good product.

If you simply compared the cost per terabyte of a tape versus the per terabyte cost of Rubrik, of course there's a considerable difference. But you're getting a vastly improved service for the business as well. Not just backup, but also recovery.

And recovery is really where many businesses have turned their attention, and their budgets, in recent years. Evaluating and procuring a new backup solution to replace like for like an old system with a bit more capacity is hard sell internally, but start to engage with your business continuity management and discuss how you could help slash business recovery times from days to hours without the need for dedicated failover sites, standby hardware and expensive SAN to SAN replication and suddenly you’re not asking for budget, but actually saving money.

Backup as a service from Assured Data Protection, with optional DR and Virtual Desktops for end users available,  combines all the benefits of disk into a simple single recurring monthly charge with no capital outlay, no tapes to procure, store or track, no per server charges and the peace of mind from knowing exactly where all your backup data is stored at any time.

Download our Backup as a Service Guide

To find out more or speak to one of our specialists, please get in touch here. 

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