The Cloud Has Not Eliminated the Need for Tape

As businesses replace more of their physical computing resources with virtualized IT in the cloud, many are wondering if cloud-based Backup as a Service (BaaS) or more comprehensive Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) have finally eliminated the need for tape.

In a word: No.

Of course, it’s been years now since the combination of high speed, high capacity disk backup systems and advanced deduplication and compression technologies freed organizations’ backup and disaster recovery strategies from the physical and logistical limitations of tape. High speed networks followed, enabling the mirroring of critical enterprise data to multiple sites and, most recently, delivery of BaaS, DRaaS and Everything as a Service through the cloud.

Gone is the era when a company’s only backup option was tape, with the risk that a disruption might put them out of business for the days — or weeks — it could take to retrieve tapes from storage in order to restore systems, applications and data. Now DRaaS provides same-day recovery, restoring business operations in hours or even minutes, with minimal or no data loss. Cloud-enabled managed failover promises the fastest possible disaster DR solution, increased resilience and near-zero downtime for mission-critical applications. When all cost factors are taken into consideration, including hardware acquisition and maintenance, infrastructure support, operating expenses, labor and conventional offsite storage fees, some of these services may actually be obtainable  at a lower cost than tape-based processes.

So there are excellent operational and economic reasons for companies to eliminate tape-based restores as their primary method of data recovery.

But tape should not — some would say cannot — be eliminated entirely.

“The belief that tape is no longer in use in data center backup remains more myth than reality,” wrote Gartner analysts Robert Rhame and Dave Russell in Discover the Truth About the Use of Disk, Tape and Cloud Backup in March 2017. Jason Buffington, principal analyst with ESG, writes in his online blog that “organizations need to stop thinking of cloud as a tape replacement and embrace each for what they are best at.”

Purposes at which tape excels include being offline and most likely uninfected in case of a widespread ransomware, malware or other cybercrime attack. Tape is an effective and affordable alternative to disk for backup of lower tier data that is less than mission critical. It’s the most economical and secure medium for long-term preservation, archival and compliance requirements. And, when all else fails, tape is often the reliable backup of last resort.

That was the case in 2011, when Google’s Gmail storage update went awry, emptying more than 150,000 users’ accounts while also making Google’s redundant cloud-based copies unavailable. Google was, however, able to restore users’ data from offsite tape backups.

So the lesson here should be that even if you are considering the cloud as a way to achieve the fastest possible recovery in case of disruption, you still need effective redundancy in your backup and DR solutions to assure that the data required for recovery will be available when you need it. Disk is too costly. Cloud alone is too uncertain: do you really know where your data is? That’s why tape still plays a role as secure offline storage in a hybrid backup and recovery solution that combines on-site disk backup, physical or virtual cloud-based storage and tape.

But where should you store your tapes as you move more of your IT, including primary backup and DR services, to the cloud? We believe a strong case can be made for having your tapes made by your cloud provider and cycled offsite by the provider to a secure, geographically separate location, just as in the old days when tapes were cycled from your production datacenter to your offsite storage provider. In this case, the cloud provider plays the role of the production datacenter, providing the benefits of tape without the hassles. 

Some cloud providers offer services that copy your data directly to tape across a high-speed network between their multiple sites and some will create the tape backups for you at the facility where their cloud services originate and send them offsite to a remote storage vault, relieving you of all of the handling, inventory and transportation responsibilities while still providing peace of mind through durable, inexpensive media backups. 

Accomplishing all this, of course, requires choosing a cloud or DRaaS provider who can include backup and disaster recovery in a single service agreement, who can copy your backups to tape conveniently and economically and who offers tape vaulting at a remote secure facility where your data will not be subject to the same physical risks as the cloud providers facilities.

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