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Why Tape Backup Remains Popular Among Small Businesses

Disk technology gets all the hype, but tape remains popular because of its price, performance and portability.
This story appears in the September 2006 issue of BizTech Magazine.

 

Disk is the latest and greatest storage technology and gets all the hype, but for data backup, IT manager Peter Boyes prefers "old reliable": tape.

 

For six years, he relied on tape backups to protect data at Ginger, a 65-person Masco Corp. subsidiary in Fort Mill, S.C., that makes bathroom accessories. Last summer, when Masco asked him to manage IT at a new product design division, he explored his options and chose tape again, specifically Sony Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT) drives.

 

Disk storage systems offer fast data backup and retrieval, but they're more expensive and don't allow for easy off-site storage, which is critical to Masco's disaster recovery strategy. Hauling hefty disk drives off-site is too cumbersome, Boyes says. Tape, however, is small, affordable and reliable, giving him no reason to stray. Every week, when the eight tapes on his AIT drive are filled, he swaps them out with new tapes and takes the backups off-site.

 

 

"Tape is still the best bang for the buck," he says. "We're very happy with reliability. Whenever we've had hardware failures or users accidentally deleting files, we were able to get last night's tape backup and bring [the data] back like it never happened. It's flawless."

 

Automated tape libraries — which can hold between three to 50 tapes and operate unattended — are a viable and popular data storage technology for small businesses because they are easy to use, reliable and affordable, says analyst Robert Abraham, of Freeman Reports, a market research firm in Ojai, Calif., that specializes in storage technology.

 

Small businesses have a variety of tape storage options to choose from, each with its own advantages. DAT is the oldest, most popular tape technology. It's the most affordable option, but offers the lowest performance and storage capacity with each DAT tape holding 36GB of data and transferring at rates of 3 megabytes per second (MB/sec), Abraham says. Because of its small capacity, DAT is best used for very small businesses that don't have massive amounts of data.

 

For companies dealing with larger amounts of data, there are other tape technologies that offer higher capacity and faster transfer rates, as well as product roadmaps that promise increased capacity and speed in the coming years.

 

Sony's AIT eight-millimeter tape technology is best suited for cost-conscious small businesses, Abraham says. Sony AIT tape drives offer good performance at low prices and come in single tape, eight-tape and 30-tape configurations, which will meet the needs of small companies as they and the size of their data grows. Another benefit is its small 3.5-inch form factor, which makes it easy for IT managers to carry and store tapes off-site.

 

Sony's current generation technology, called AIT-4, features 200GB of native capacity at a 24MB/sec data transfer rate. Its next-generation technology, AIT-5, forthcoming this fall, will reach 400GB of capacity at 24MB/sec speeds. A competing eight-millimeter tape technology, Exabyte's VXA 320, offers 160GB of native capacity at 12MB/sec data transfer rates.

 

 

Generation 2X

 

Small businesses needing more performance and speed out of their tape storage devices should consider Linear Tape-Open (LTO) and Digital Linear Tape (DLT) technologies, which are perceived to be more reliable than AIT, VXA or DAT, Abraham says.

 

LTO, based on an industry standard originally developed by Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Seagate, has quickly grabbed market share and has the largest product portfolio, Abraham says. The newest version of LTO, called LTO-3, holds 400GB of data with transfer rates of 80MB/sec. DLT is a proprietary technology developed by Quantum. The latest technology, called DLT-S4, offers the largest storage capacity at 800GB with data transfer speeds of 60MB/sec.

 

Disk storage technology is also an option for companies that need fast data backup and retrieval. (See Tech Trends, Page 17.) But Tom Guadagno, director of information technology at WICU-TV, in Erie, Pa., says the five to 10 minutes it takes to restore accidentally deleted files from tape and the three hours it takes to complete a full tape backup of 350GB of data is fast enough for his station.

 

"It's reliable, fast and easy to configure," says Guadagno, who purchased a Sony AIT tape drive. "I've had great success and wouldn't use anything else."

 

WICU-TV uses tape to store up to 60 day's worth of data from the station's eight servers, from e-mail to play lists that automate everything the station airs, from TV programs to commercials. WICU-TV recently purchased a $3,000 Sony LIB 81/A4 tape autoloader, which supports the AIT-4 standard and features eight tape slots. With one tape reserved for a tape cleaner, the remaining seven tapes store up to 1.4TB of uncompressed data.

 

Guadagno — who uses NetVault's BakBone software to manage the backup and restore process — runs full backups on weekends and partial backups three times a day. Once a month, he stores a set of full-backup tapes off-site. "We set it and forget it. It works great," he says.

 

When Boyes equipped Masco Product Design's 10-person, Chicago-based office with technology, he considered LTO and DLT, but stayed loyal to Sony AIT because of its price and performance. He uses a $2,000 Sony AIT Library LIB 81 model, which features eight AIT-3 tape slots for a total storage space of 800GB. For the same storage capacity, a Quantum DLT-S4 tape drive would cost about $4,000.

 

"Sony AIT seemed to be the sweet spot as far as memory on each tape and the capacity and speed of the drive," he says.

 

Boyes, who manages backups and restores with Symantec's Backup Exec software, says having peace of mind is worth the investment. If servers crash, he knows everything is backed up.

 

"The return on investment is having the data backed up and being able to retrieve it," he says. "If we had to re-create this data, we would lose money because the designers would spin their wheels having to re-create drawings."

 

CEO takeaway
Here are the key considerations when choosing among backup technologies to protect your business:
Business need. How fast do you need to back up and restore data? Are your operations real-time or can you afford a few hours of downtime without serious damage to your business? That will help you choose between disk and tape, and among the variety of tape options.
Performance. Consider real-world performance of the network and system. In many cases, some of the newer, higher performance tape drives can outperform the system bandwidth, which could ultimately cause poorer drive performance.
Extra costs. The largest upfront investment is for the tape drives and autoloaders, but also account for the cost of tapes and tape cleaners. For example, Sony AIT tapes cost about $60, LTO-3s cost between $85 to $100 and DLT-S4s cost about $110.
Proprietary products vs. standards. LTO is an industry standard, but Sony AIT, Quantum’s DLT and Exabyte’s VXA are proprietary. Proprietary technology locks you into a single vendor, but can offer price/performance advantages.
Beware of marketing hype. Vendors tout a 2:1 compression ratio, meaning a drive with 100GB of native capacity should hold 200GB in compressed data. But your mileage may vary, so stick with native capacities when gauging your business’ needs.
Backwards compatibility. This is an important factor if you expect your storage demands to grow and you’ll need to add new equipment to your initial investment. If you upgrade, you want your newest tape system to read your archived tapes. Most tape technologies are compatible at least one or two previous generations. Sony’s forthcoming AIT-5 will be backwards compatible to AIT-4, AIT-3 and AIT-3Ex, for example.
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