The Great Data Storage Debate: is Tape Dead?

The Great Data Storage Debate: Is Tape Dead?

Enterprise Storage ForumThe data storage industry is in no danger of diminished growth anytime soon. The amount of data we need to store is not only growing, it’s growing exponentially. Everything from the smartphone in your pocket to the server in your business creates fresh data streams constantly. And with the advent of the Internet of Things, the avalanche of data will only grow larger.

But while data storage as a whole is growing, not every type of data storage media is growing. The venerable storage media of tape is seeing declining fortunes – or is it?

Are Businesses Losing Faith in Tape?

That’s the debate: are businesses losing faith in tape? Or will this well-established data storage media – known for its low cost – continue to have a place?

That very debate is raging on Enterprise Storage Forum. On one hand, noted storage analyst Christine Taylor wrote Will the “Tape is Dead” Folks Please Sit Down? As the title suggests, she feels that any doubt about tape’s future should be laid to rest. Taylor is well aware that, while tape was the storage medium of choice for decades, it no longer holds that premier position. She notes that tape’s loss is (partially) the cloud’s gain, as businesses, especially SMBs, bypass in-house storage to move data to the public cloud.

But the news is far from all cloudy for tape, she points out. First of all, business are still buying tape systems: “After showing signs of bottoming out a few years ago, 2013 sales stopped declining and 2014 is seeing rising sales.” Furthermore, the humble media of tape can still brag about some nice performance: Tape is not always slower than disk. “Performance differs depending on the speed of the disk system or autoloader/library and the type of data being transferred,” she claims, and in some situations tape shines.

Perhaps most encouraging for tape is the many real world use cases she points to. High profile organizations using tape include the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the National Institute of Health, the Argonne National Laboratory, NASA, the Discovery Channel, and the University of Southern California. Not too shabby a list.

Taylor’s conclusion: “The upshot is that tape is neither dying, shrinking, nor retreating.”

On The Other Hand Tape Sales are Down

Noted data storage pundit Henry Newman clearly disagrees with Taylor. In his article Follow the Money: Picking Technology Winners and Losers, he admits that he was previously of the “tape is still alive” camp. At one time he even argued for tape’s survival, strenuously. But, he says, he’s come to the view that tape is suffering inarguably declining fortunes. He says he’s realized that, after 35 years in the tech market, understanding trends is simply a case of “following the money.”

And the money doesn’t look good for tape. After some recent research, Newman found out that tape sales are down a full 50 percent since 2008 (obviously he and Taylor look at different time frames). Newman’s information comes from the Web page TapeTracker.

Newman points that the tape will still be with us for quite some time. But here’s the big problem he points out: as sales slow, innovation will slow. Have you ever known a technology to survive without innovation? That single problems cast a true shadow over tape’s future.

The Bottom Line: Legacy Systems Hang On

My personal take: tape clearly is on the decline. But remember, legacy systems can hang for a shockingly long time. The horse and buggy was overtaken by the internal combustion engine in the early 1900s, but go to Central Park and people are still taking horse and buggy rides. Closer to the tech world, mainframes are supposedly passé, but IBM continues to make a considerable fortune selling them.

That said, tape faces competition that will replace it. The price of flash storage keeps coming down. The trend line is inevitable: at some point, flash will be so affordable that it won’t make sense for a business to buy a new tape system. That day won’t be tomorrow, but it’s on the way. Long term, tape’s fortunes aren’t looking good. But at this point, it still stores a lot of ones and zeroes.

James Maguire

James Maguire is the Senior Managing Editor of Datamation, InfoStor and Enterprise Storage Forum.

This article was originally published on December 15, 2014

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