Low-Cost Tape Storage Ideal for Federal Archival Data

SPECIAL REPORT: Storage Management

By Barbara DePompa, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media

With the advent of de-duplication, RAID, MAID, virtualized storage and even cloud computing solutions, there's been a steady drum beat sounding the looming demise of tape storage.

Meanwhile, however, the federal government must keep all kinds of information, for years, if not indefinitely. This is why, for example the NASA space program maintains enormous archives of automated tape libraries. And DoD organizations also possess vast libraries on missions dating back decades. Even if information stored in these archives isn't accessed on a regular basis, industry observers maintain the mountains of data housed in federal coffers must be properly stored and maintained.

And while the purveyors of disk storage solutions have tried to offer lower cost solutions, tape storage remains the least expensive tier. It's not clear how data on early NASA space missions could be migrated to disk storage devices, especially drives that are continually spinning, which would only add to 24X7 electricity requirements.

According to Curtis Breville, senior analyst, storage management for Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates, “infrequently accessed, yet strictly regulated data stored inside most federal organizations today should remain on the least expensive storage tier, which is tape,” he explained.

Federal agencies and departments may be tempted to migrate to disk or virtualized solutions, mostly due to management headaches and a shrinking window for backups in most data centers today.  Most federal institutions still possess and use large quantities of tape drives for archival storage, however, and Breville asserted, as federal organizations seek low-cost and reliable storage alternatives, they shouldn't turn away from the advantages provided by tape storage solutions.

The primary problem with tape storage is a lack of easy maintenance, or visibility into tape storage volumes, and the reactive management that often occurs when federal IT organizations must deal with eventual tape storage failures. Breville places blame on the tape storage industry suppliers, including Sun, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Quantum, among others, for manufacturing tape devices that don't allow for customers to monitor or maintain systems over their extensive life spans. This is why an increasing number of both private and public sector organizations have sought newer technological solutions, migrating from tape to disk storage alternatives, which are more expensive, but can offer the monitoring capabilities that industry suppliers have failed to provide for tape storage devices.

Despite a lack of monitoring capability in tape storage devices sold by nearly all major storage suppliers, Breville recommends federal agencies and departments consider third-party software-based monitoring solutions such as StorSentry, or Crossroad's Read/Verify Appliance (RVA).  StorSentry, for example, is currently resold by Sun and is installed at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to Breville, there are rumors IBM intends to roll out a similar add-on tape monitoring solution, but no details were available by press time.

For federal data centers overflowing with information that must be kept, in some cases indefinitely, and accessed only infrequently, Breville maintains software-based monitoring solutions eliminate the nagging reliability/maintenance concerns that have plagued tape solutions for decades. StorSentry, for example, “can inform an administrator when a problem comes from a tape or the drive, along with what precisely is causing the problem, and can even offer recommendations on how best to repair the subsystem,” Breville explained.

Crossroads RVA, meanwhile, offers impressive analysis and reporting features for tape environments. Breville said both tape storage monitoring solutions give federal IT storage administrators the ability to reap the benefits of low-cost tape storage, while drastically reducing the pain involved when responding to a sudden tape storage failure.