There's probably nothing more familiar to most folks over the age of 40 as a symbol of the computer age than the 9-track tape drive -- a prop in just about every sci-fi or action movie from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Well, the 9-track era is over -- at least for the last US manufacturer of 9-track tape drives. Qualstar Corporation, a maker of tape storage products, announced the final shipment of its 9-track tape drives late last month, with a farewell celebration at its facility in Simi Valley, California. It was reminiscent of the fanfare that propelled the final VW Beetle off a Mexican assembly line a month earlier. After twenty years of designing and manufacturing these drives, the company delivered serial number 27,294, its final 9-track drive, to Vinastar Corporation.
But, the company says, tape is not dead. And, indeed, with hundreds of millions of reels of tape still carrying data that is used with some regularity -- seismic records, government information, etc. Even 9-track is by no means gone. More importantly, claims Bob Covey, Qualstar's vice president of marketing, the same advances in density and read/write speeds that continue to boost disk performance also, in most cases, lead to substantial growth in tape performance.
"The role of tape going forward is very similar to the role it has played historically," says Covey. "It is still an important backup medium and fulfills a very strong archival role, as well." What's more, says Covey, the range of new or improved tape formats introduced in recent years provides an excellent set of choices to IT organizations. "Tape and disk aren't adversarial at all," he says. Instead, Covey sees opportunities to create the most ideal mix of technologies, particularly with road maps that extend several years into the future for almost all tape formats.
In her recent Data Mobility Group report, "The Future of Enterprise Tape", analyst Dianne McAdam says that those roadmaps generally include tape cartridges exceeding a terabyte in size -- with capacities doubling about every two years.
But this is only part of the story. As McAdams notes, "...The real revolution has been the way in which tape is now handled -- or rather "not handled." Today, vendors continue to work on ways to further automate tape environments and to make tape devices more intelligent."
McAdam, for her part, takes a very positive view of these developments. According to her assessment, tape automation rates as much improved -- though still not what it could be. However, she points to disk-tape marriages like the IBM Virtual Tape Server introduced back in 1997 and now often implemented as simply having disk systems buffering tape I/O.
Again, she adds, the question should now no longer be whether backups should be on disk or tape but on what the best mix of technologies is to enhance the backup process.
For more information:Webcast: Debunking the seven myths of tape
Tip: How to do hybrid backup
Tip: Be careful with tape labels
About the author: Alan Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, MA.