Moving from tape to disk: A six-step guide

The benefits of disk-based backup are appealing, but moving from tape to disk takes planning. These six tips will help you build a solid game plan to ease your transition.

Ever since computers have had hard drives, tape backup has been a tedious but indispensable operational process...

for protecting data. Way back when, the problem was manually replacing tapes each time a tape volume was full. Tape robots alleviated this issue, but low tape capacities still meant frequent manual operations. But as tape capacity grew, online data grew even faster. Even if all the media management problems disappeared, tape backup would be, and always will be, hard-pressed to keep up. Sadly, it seems like no matter what tape innovations are available, tape backup is the IT equivalent of Sisyphus forever pushing a huge boulder uphill.

But there's an alternative: Eliminate tape drives and offsite rotation completely, and store all primary and backup data on disk drives. I remember hearing EMC founder Richard Egan saying pretty much the same thing almost 20 years ago. "Why do we need tape drives?" Egan asked rhetorically. "We don't. Someday, everything will be stored on disk."

Of course, one could argue that the father of EMC had more than a bit of self-interest in such a bold declaration. At the time, users couldn't imagine a world without tape. Disk was too expensive and lacked the capacity of tape. Tape backup was a necessary evil.

Disk everywhere
Egan's prediction may have seemed absurd in 1985, but time has proven just how prescient the "disk everywhere" vision was. According to a recent Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) research report, tape replacement is not only happening, it's a fast-growing trend.

ESG surveyed 284 North American storage professionals from 19 industry segments about their tape replacement strategies. Nearly half of the respondents came from the storage elite--organizations with more than 10,000 employees. The data indicates that a major tape replacement cycle has begun: Seventy-six percent of users have replaced, or are interested in replacing, tape libraries with disk storage.

Why? Users object to slow tape-drive performance and media management hassles. They see advantages in replacing tape, such as improved backup and recovery performance, enhanced business continuity/disaster recovery and lower operating costs.

Are disks a panacea for all tape woes? No. Users are still concerned about disk costs and offsite data protection, but these issues don't seem to be slowing the tape replacement trend. Ten percent of respondents indicated that they'll replace all of their tape with disk capacity in three years. Others were more conservative, but the data clearly indicates that an "in with the new disk, out with the old tape" mindset is becoming mainstream.

Transition from tape
So you roll out the tape drives, replace the capacity with some disk drives and you're done, right? Wrong. Replacing tape with disk should be thought of as a major process and technology transformation. As with any transition of this magnitude, storage managers need a game plan to ensure minimal business disruption while maintaining data protection and achieving the best results.

To accomplish this, storage executives should compose their project plans as soon as possible. Here are a few crucial items to consider:

  1. Take the opportunity to review the entire backup process. Backup is one of the least sexy jobs in IT, so your process is probably full of inefficiencies and security vulnerabilities. But there are important policies and procedures that must remain part of the data protection process as disk replaces tape. Smart storage managers will use this transition as an audit opportunity to improve the backup process, making sure to include critical tasks, but eliminating waste and security risks. In other words, use tape replacement as a catalyst to make manual processes more efficient and secure. This will ultimately save money as well.
  2. Take the time to do some "spring cleaning" of your tape inventory. Often, tape storage facilities look like a typical basement or attic. Boxes of tapes linger for years because no one wants to take the time to check if the tapes are still good or if the data is still useful. It isn't a fun job, but it has to be done eventually. Use a tape replacement project as an excuse to stop procrastinating and get this task off your plate.
  3. Classify your data. Data classification is an imperative in the tape replacement process. How else will you know which data to place on disk vs. tape during the transition? The problem is that most shops haven't undertaken this critical project. According to the 2004 ESG research report Storage Security, only 40% of organizations do any data classification today. Data classification may seem mundane, but it's a necessary task. It must also be a cooperative effort among storage professionals, business managers, security managers and compliance officers. Data needs to be defined by its criticality, confidentiality, regulatory requirements and shelf life. Remember: Data classification will also be part of the foundation of information lifecycle management applications, so you'll get multiple benefits as a result of your efforts.
  4. Collaborate with the networking teams. As offsite tape capacity moves online, there will be an increasing need to design networks that can distribute data to multiple data centers and accommodate the bandwidth required for moving terabytes of information. Storage managers must communicate these needs to their networking counterparts so they can plan accordingly. The networking folks are probably thinking about IP-based services like telephony, Web services applications and multimedia, so they'll need to include tape replacement requirements in their plans for 10Gb Ethernet backbones, WAN architectures and ISP contracts.
  5. Collaborate with the security group. Security-novice storage professionals must remember that more online storage means more security risks--it's as simple as that. Make security managers part of the tape replacement process to ensure that online disk drives, backup servers and SAN devices are protected with the appropriate vulnerability scans, encryption appliances and access controls, and that they're included in security policies, procedures and operations.
  6. Work proactively with existing vendors, but don't exclude startups. Don't make assumptions about how tape replacement technologies evolve. Many tape-drive providers are introducing innovative tiered solutions that slowly introduce disk into the mix, while disk vendors are working with backup software providers to emulate tape and media management. The tape replacement transition provides an opportunity for your strategic vendors to communicate their vision, product roadmaps and service plans. Savvy storage executives will also open the door to pioneering tape replacement startups offering unique solutions. The best of this bunch will get scooped up by the big storage leaders over time.

Bottom line
Tape is on a slow but steady journey to the old technology retirement home, right next to Token Ring networks and Digital VAXs. This transition will certainly help to improve backup performance, data protection and operating overhead, but there's still work to be done. ESG believes tape replacement conversion presents a wonderful opportunity to review processes and tape archives to eliminate waste. This transition should also be supported by data classification, network design and the appropriate security protection. Make your vendors hold your hand as you proceed and look for true innovators who may offer superior solutions to the old guard.

Finally, storage professionals know better than most that technology advances will continue to happen. Rather than sit back and wait for changes, managers who take the time to plan for inexorable tape replacement will ultimately get the biggest bang for their buck.

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