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Turn tapes into cloud archives

It’s clear that cloud archiving may be attractive to companies with aging data stored on relatively expensive in-house arrays. More questionable is whether or not converting from tape-based archives to cloud archives

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makes sense. Larger organizations may have tens of thousands of tapes in off-site archives. The process of retrieving all those tapes and reading them onto a cloud archive infrastructure is daunting. It also assumes the provider has the necessary hardware to read all the tapes, some of which may be in obsolete formats. Moreover, there’s no way a cloud provider could host such a data volume at anything close to the cost of tapes sitting in a glorified warehouse. Disk compression and data deduplication can help significantly, but the difference in cost is still likely to amount to a substantial premium.

Even though the hurdles for converting tape to cloud archiving are high, it may still be a consideration. Tapes more than seven years old are likely to be very expensive -- and possibly problematic -- to restore. Best practices dictate that organizations retrieve and rewrite tapes every five years to ensure the data is readable and the format is current. It’s a task to be reckoned with. For example, with a 10,000 tape archive and a five-year refresh cycle, a company would have to refresh 2,000 tapes each year. That comes to approximately eight tapes per workday, which is doable, but requires a year-around effort for what’s fundamentally a nonproduction exercise. Here again, the crux of the matter lies in the probability of retrieval. Some organizations choose to allow tapes to become obsolete in the vault with the knowledge that a recovery would be painful, but the probability of needing to restore the data is low enough to be worth the risk. On the other hand, if you know a recovery is all but inevitable, you may opt to incur the time and expense of moving from tape to cloud now, thus saving significant time and effort later, perhaps under urgent conditions.

That’s not to suggest that tape is losing its role in archiving. It’s still the lowest cost choice for most situations. In addition, LTO’s Linear Tape File System (LTFS) is enabling tape to take on a new role as “tier 4” storage, so it can act as another tier in the cloud (or data center) that’s provisioned along with tiers 0, 1, 2 and 3. In a cloud archive environment, this would effectively enable a hybrid cloud that offers relatively fast access (e.g., minutes) but at the price point of tape for rarely accessed data. The tapes will also have built-in compression, and the options of encryption and WORM. Using automated tiering software, data can be moved automatically to the archive tier.

The inevitable “what if”

So far, we’ve painted a fairly positive picture of cloud archiving services. Usually the effort yields the desired result, but not always. Organizations should consider what would happen if they transferred tens of TBs of data to a provider and then failed to realize the desired or contracted results. Sure, penalties might kick in, but small monetary penalties wouldn’t fully compensate for the true cost, aggravation or damage to the IT organization’s reputation for delivery. Contingencies begin with a contract that may be terminated without penalty for failure to meet specific performance levels. It should also include a plan for alternative hosting capabilities, either back in-house or with another provider. Cloud archiving is fairly low on the list of risky endeavors, but smart organizations will be prepared for anything.

BIO: Phil Goodwin is a storage consultant and freelance writer.

This was first published in May 2012

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