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Magnetic tape is the oldest form of information storage still in use (and one of the best ways to keep data safe) but precautions still need to be put in place

Phil Bridge, Managing Director, Kroll Ontrack

Ever wondered what happened to cassettes? The recent announcement of Sony’s new magnetic tape has brought the antiquated technology back in the spotlight- by setting a new storage record.

Phil Bridge
Phil Bridge

The Japanese powerhouse has just developed a magnetic tape that has 3,700 times more storage than a Blu-ray disc.  The tape can store up to 185 terabytes of data – which is 74 times the capacity of traditional magnetic tapes. Why all this investment in making tape bigger and better –especially when we have so many other storage options to choose from?

Magnetic tape has been around for a long time.  It was first invented for recording sound in1928, but it has evolved into one of the most ubiquitous and reliable mediums for storing data.  In a world crowded with sophisticated means of storage, such as SSDs and cloud computing, it’s easy to forget the crucial role that magnetic tape plays in managing information.  Not only is this ‘old fashioned’ storage media still relevant, it also being singled out by companies as a solution to a very modern problem – the challenge of archiving vast amounts of data in a reliable and economically viable way.

Why tape?

There are many benefits of using magnetic tape over other storage mediums.  One of its advantages is longevity. Unlike other forms of storage, tapes last a lot longer and are less susceptible to the risks modern drives face.  In fact, tapes can still be read reliably after thirty years, whereas the average disk lasts a mere five years.   This is not the case for SSDs, HDDs or even cloud computing. Malware, damaged disks and discontinued software patches can also lead to the permanent deletion of data.

Extracting data from tape is also very fast. Getting data from tape is nearly four times quicker than reading from a hard disk, due to the complexity and sophistication of new storage devices. Another advantage is low cost. Not only are magnetic tapes cheaper to buy, they also don’t need sophisticated warehouses to keep them safe. The energy requirements to keep disks in HDDs safe can be very costly. Just think how much cooling is needed to keep a data storage warehouses running?

Indeed, modern storage mediums can be expensive but they are also not completely secure. Any data that isn’t managed in a virtual environment is often stored somewhere that is unknown to the company and not always backed up. Furthermore, it can be lost if office devices are damaged or stolen.

The challenges of reliable tape archiving

Undoubtedly, using magnetic tape for storage makes sense for many organisations.   Company contracts, customer data, manufacturing and design plans – all this necessary corporate data can have significantly longer half-life on tape than the short-lived IT systems on which they are stored.

However, any business that uses data archiving still needs to take precautions to protect data. Archiving company data on magnetic tapes requires more than just using backup solutions and then putting the tape into a storage room.

The right way to save

The most important rule in data archiving is always to think long term. Tapes are designed to be maintained for the long term so data can be accessed when necessary.  Companies should therefore have a back-up plan that is reviewed periodically. They must also keep in mind that technology can expire and become discontinued and should therefore keep on top of what is happening with hardware and software trends.  Recently, Kroll Ontrack was asked to recover over 35,000 records from the 1980s for a bank that was being audited. Although the bank took the business of archiving very seriously, the hardware used to store the tapes was no longer operational and they couldn’t access their records without the help of our recovery experts.

At another company, an internal audit required the restoration of all Lotus Notes mailboxes from an AS/400 system. However, the hardware used at that time to store data no longer existed – thereby making the data impossible to read. Fortunately, the archived data could be recovered in the laboratory of Kroll Ontrack and migrated to newer media formats in both cases.

Archiving securely

For the safe management of long-term archived data, companies need to do more than regular conversion to current formats. Data should be classified before archiving, so that those responsible can specify what data must be kept and for how long. Commercial documents are usually legally required to be retained for a set time period. This time is usually covered by the lifetime of an archive system.  However, documents with longer deadlines or time value, such as research and financial documents, construction plans or legal judgments, require special arrangements for archiving because they outlive the archive system.

In addition, IT managers need to be aware that systems can fail as a result of human or technical error. Anybody that relies completely on the archive system for storage without any backup strategy risks the loss of business-critical data. At a minimum, IT staff should not only rely on the automatic recognition of spelling errors during archiving, but also periodically check the archive system data for readability.

Deleting securely

If backup tapes are no longer needed, companies need to know how to permanently and securely delete highly sensitive data on the tapes.  Merely crushing the tape will not get rid of information. If a tape snaps,it can be spliced back together. The loss is usually no more than a few hundred megabytes. Most of the data is still on the tape!

Companies should therefore play it safe and demagnetise the storage media through degaussing. The degausser produces an extremely strong electromagnetic field and thus all magnetic structures are destroyed on the tape. This is the only way that data can be irrevocably destroyed on tape.

Old fashion magnetic tape has a big future in the modern world as companies struggle to find ways to manage the incredible rise of data. But safe and reliable tape archiving involves more than just saving data to tape. It requires managers to work within retention periods and to create back up plans for when things go wrong. In addition, companies should always have a clear data management policy in place, so that IT management understand what they need to do to safeguard information, and most importantly, who needs to take responsibility when data disaster strikes.

Phil Bridge Biography:

Phil Bridge

Managing Director, Data Storage Technologies

Phil has been at the helm of UK activity for the world’s foremost data recovery company since 2006.

He has been with Kroll Ontrack for over seventeen years and has an extremely well rounded view of the company and in-depth knowledge of the industry. In addition to leading the UK business, Phil oversees activities in Ireland, Spain and Portugal. Phil can talk about all areas of Kroll Ontrack business and can offer an expert opinion and insight into:

  • Kroll Ontrack as a business; its vision, values and corporate strategy
  • Business continuity advice and the importance of ensuring data protection is a boardroom issue
  • Information Management in business as it relates to the Kroll Ontrack portfolio of data management products and services
  • Detail and analysis of channel and corporate partner business and opportunities