September 10, 2019
Best Practices for Offsite Tape Storage: Short Overview
IT professionals commonly rely on disk-based and cloud-based backup solutions, while the technology of tape backups often remains without the attention it’s due. Still, the key benefits it provides in terms of both storage and recovery of valuable data ensure its role in a comprehensive data protection strategy.
Below, we will provide a short overview of what tape backup is, what makes it a strong tool for data archiving and disaster recovery, and how to maintain your tape backup library.
Magnetic Tape as Offsite Tape Storage
The name speaks for itself: data is written to and read from magnetic tape packaged in cartridges, while the device that performs these operations is called a tape drive. This is a traditional backup practice with its key benefits being simplicity and favorable cost. Simply for reference, the first computer tape drives appeared as far back as the 1950s and were primarily used as an offsite tape storage.
Today, industry experts are reporting a decline in the use of magnetic tape for backup and recovery purposes, especially in view of the recent rise of cloud computing. However, this in no way means that tape backups are an outdated form of technology. On the contrary, the technology keeps improving, while recent advancements make it the best possible choice in some cases.
Strongest points of tape backup technology
Below, you can see the list of tape backup advantages which made it possible for the tape technology to remain a critical component of the data protection infrastructure for several decades.
- The number one benefit is large storage capacity, which turns tape backups into a good option for organizations and companies that need to archive large amounts of data and meet compliance requirements: hospitals, educational institutions, IT service providers, and so on. Even giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft use tape backup technology. As an example, in November 2018, IBM released new tape drive with its native data capacity being 20 TB. In fact, this is a real breakthrough in tape backup technologies.
- Storage capacity of tape backup library is easy to scale up. This is also true about cloud services, but you would need to buy additional hardware to scale up disk-based backup infrastructure. In the case of tape backups, it is enough to buy more cartridges or tape drives, which is relatively inexpensive.
- Sensitive data is stored offline, which means it is fully protected from ransomware and hacking. With that, cartridges are portable and, therefore, can be easily transferred to an offsite tape storage. Basically, that’s what makes tape backups a highly-secure solution.
- Storage life and the fact that magnetic tape does not require much in terms of maintenance make it a cost-efficient option for long-term data retention. More precisely put, tape can last up to 30 years if stored in proper conditions. Just to understand what it means in practice, try to calculate how much you would have to pay for using cloud archive services during this period and compare the costs. On the other hand, even the 30-year long lifespan does not mean that IT professionals can avoid rewriting tapes if they wish to prevent data loss. All the same, the backup tapes best practices discussed below will help you extend the life of the media.
What to Remember about Tape Backup Recovery
An important thing about tape backups and recovery speed is that data can only be accessed linearly, or in a sequential manner. The point is that a tape drive physically rewinds the tape to reach a specific time point. Obviously, this makes the average access time large enough. On the contrary, a disk drive provides direct, or nonlinear access. This is more convenient as any piece of data can be reached instantly. Fortunately, native data transfer rate is high enough to compare it to disk drives. In the case of the above-mentioned IBM release, it is 400 MB/s. Just for comparison, the transfer rate of IBM release as of 2011 was 250 MB/s, which clearly shows that the technology keeps advancing.
In such a way, tape backup library should not play the role of a company’s primary backup. In this respect, either disk-based or cloud-based backup is a much more flexible solution that allows for higher recovery speed. In turn, offsite tape storage is a good option for archiving large amounts of data that doesn’t need to be accessed frequently.
Backup Tapes Best Practices
To extend the useful life of a tape backup library, as well as ensure its security and efficiency, it’s recommended to adhere to several simple rules and practices. They are as follows:
- First of all, define the appropriate backup strategy. Carefully think over the backup rotation scheme, namely the schedule, frequency, and retention period of your backups. There is no single correct option, as the approach should depend on your business needs.
- Create a list of tape cartridges and regularly check whether all of them are in place. It is strongly recommended that you provide a barcode for each cartridge. Label each cartridge to provide information about its content, backup creation date, tape format, and so on. Needless to say, this will make the process of disaster recovery faster.
- Do not forget to regularly check whether the data you would need in case of a disaster recovery event is available and can be accessed on demand. In other words, it is important to test recoverability of tape backups. It will also let you know how much time the entire process requires and what challenges it might be accompanied by.
- To send tape cartridges offsite for long-term retention is a common practice. On one hand, this will let you restore production environment even if a disaster strikes your physical office and servers. On the other hand, make sure that the time required to access your offsite tape storage and complete the recovery process fits within your Recovery Time Objectives (RTOs). A good option would be to have two copies of a tape backup, offsite and in-house. However, disk-based backups would make for a better onsite option as they provide faster access to required data.
- As for the offsite tape storage location, it is better to find a place within a reasonable distance. As explained above, this will help you meet your RTOs in the event of a disaster. With that in mind, try to find a spot that could be reached within a few hours.
- Attentively learn the rules and regulations on how to store magnetic tape. Offsite tape storage shouldn’t be exposed to heat, humidity, dust, and so on. Conditions of the offsite tape storage greatly affect the lifespan of tape as it is an extremely sensitive material.
- Tapes must be kept in a clean and dust-free area. Never touch the tape and avoid opening a tape drive manually. Modern tape drives send notifications if the tape needs to be cleaned. Carefully learn cleaning instructions and remember that tape can only be cleaned a limited number of times.
- Make sure that only trusted employees have access to the backup library. At least two employees should be granted administrative rights to maintain all records and perform the procedure of recovery.
- Do not forget to scan your production environment for viruses and malware prior to each successive backup. This will let you prevent data corruption and ensure its recoverability.
- An important but sometimes neglected rule is to carefully eject the tape after the job is complete. With most tape drives, this is done through the application, while manual tape removal is only performed in emergency situations. In any case, do not leave the cartridge in a tape drive and remember to put it in a protective case.