Is Tape the New Cloud?

By Mitch Lewis, Wednesday, July 15th 2020

Analyst Blogs

The information technology landscape seems to have an ever-increasing number of “as a Service” offerings as data continues to move into public clouds, and often for good reason. The public cloud is an attractive offering – pay as you go, and let someone else handle the infrastructure. It offers simplicity, security, and flexibility, however, as many IT organizations have found out, the public cloud is not a one-size-fits all solution to all technical challenges. Using public clouds as primary data storage for example can become prohibitively expensive when dealing with large capacities and growing egress costs. So, is the public cloud best suited for storage of largescale, inactive data with archival offerings such as Amazon Glacier? Well, perhaps, but there is an older, less flashy (pun intended) technology that is dusting itself off to rival the cloud giant: Tape.

Amazon Glacier, and similar offerings such as Microsoft Azure Cool Blob Storage, have an undeniable appeal. Organizations can capitalize on these offerings by offloading large capacities of infrequently used data from their on-premises systems for long term storage at a low price.  In many ways, the use case of Glacier is a modernized approach to the traditional strategy of storing archived data on tape, only now with less physical infrastructure and a new pricing model. If the saying goes that “the cloud is just someone else’s computer,” then perhaps Glacier is just someone else’s tape.

Gateway solutions such as Spectra Logic’s BlackPearl or FujiFilm’s Object Archive allow for S3 object data to be stored on tape, creating the opportunity for IT organizations to create their own “on-premises Glacier.” But why should an old technology such as tape have a re-emergence if the same archival strategy can be achieved in the public cloud? While the two approaches attempt to solve the same fundamental issue of providing secure, economic storage for inactive data, the differences in their approach can be crucial to IT decision making.

The cloud adds simplicity by removing the planning and management involved with physical on-premises infrastructure – you are no longer managing your own hardware, and if you need greater capacity you can simply add more capacity. In addition, cloud providers will handle necessary technology migrations as they arise. On the other hand, it can add additional complexity when it comes to calculating costs. Amazon Glacier allows for free data uploads and advertises prices as low as $1 per terabyte. This cost however can vary greatly depending on a list of additional variables including the region in which its stored, the data retrieval time, the number of retrievals, and where data is being retrieved to. Actions such as early deletion of data may incur additional costs as well. Depending on the storage and retrieval needs, the cost of using cloud archive storage can become unpredictable, and may even require specialized personnel just to keep up with the complicated pricing structure.

Using tape as an archive solution on the other hand provides a somewhat opposite dynamic. Now IT organizations have physical tape on-premises which requires greater planning for capacity and management of physical hardware. The cost and complexity of migrating data to an on-premises archive solution must also be considered as it requires staffing resources and a time commitment to handle any potential complications. Tape, however, provides a much more predictable experience both for cost and efficiency of retrieving data. The cost of tape drives and an object gateway can be easily understood by an IT organization without needing a specialist to keep up with a highly variable formula. Cost can be determined up front and there are no egress costs involved when accessing archived data. Similarly, the data retrieval process is much more predictable. Data can be retrieved quickly without relying on a cloud service provider, and without paying a premium for expedited data retrieval. Some vendors allow for additional flexibility with available OpEx pricing models, leases, or Storage-as-a-Service offerings. These offerings allow for a more cloud-like consumption, while still enjoying the benefits of on-premises data.

So, is tape the new cloud? The answer is highly dependent on the organization and their data archival needs. The cloud has proven that it is not a magic solution to every problem, however it has also cemented itself as being a valuable tool when leveraged correctly. Likewise, tape has fallen out of style when compared to on premises flash or disk storage, but continues to prove itself a worthwhile solution as a secure, low cost, highly reliable storage solution. In order to determine an appropriate archival method, organizations must consider the variables at stake and how they might impact their chosen solution. Does your organization prioritize simplicity of infrastructure management, or simplicity in pricing structure? How much data needs to be archived, and how much might that vary? How often will archived data need to be accessed, and what are the time requirements to do so? The reality is that the public cloud will not solve all of IT’s problems, and neither will tape, but with proper planning and an understanding of the available strategies both have the potential to create an economical archiving solution.

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