The History and Advantages of Tape Backup

Bill Tolson

In 1928, Fritz Pfleumer invented magnetic tape. It was used to record sound. Today, it’s mainly known as a tool for backing up computers. In observance of its upcoming 90th birthday, here are the advantages of tape backup and some other uses not typically associated with tape.

According to TechTarget, tape backup “is the practice of periodically copying data from a primary storage device to a tape cartridge so the data can be recovered if there is a hard disk crash or failure.” Tape backups can be run manually or programmed to kick off automatically for an entire enterprise.

In the modern era, most companies use magnetic tape to back up their enterprise systems. Today’s tape is composed of a durable plastic, one side of which has a ferromagnetic coating which is used to make the actual recording. Tape storage capacity has greatly improved over time, enabling larger backups spanning several servers. With the introduction of the tape autoloader, automatic backups of the entire enterprise became possible.

One early drawback to magnetic tape was that tapes had to be periodically recopied because of degradation of the base tape medium as well as the deteriorating magnetic properties. In reality, these issues only mattered for tapes used for storing data for long periods of time, 10 years or more.

With today’s capability, a single magnetic tape cartridge can store up to 1 terabyte (TB) of data. However, this is not as much as it used to be, considering the amount of data found in the average modern corporate environment.

The device that performs the recording and data restoration is called the tape drive. Tape autoloaders and larger tape libraries automate cartridge handling so that more servers can be serviced. An example of a large tape library? The Powderhorn library from StorageTek in the early 2000s. The Powderhorn was robot controlled and included slots for 6000 tapes with total storage capacities of petabytes.

But the buck doesn’t stop with server and mass storage backup. Modern uses of magnetic tape also include archiving and data transport. The advantages of tape backup have already been explored, but data archiving for longer-term storage has been popular over the last several decades. Archiving on tape is essentially a backup created for meeting regulatory requirements. Protecting valuable business information offsite and offline not only ensures that an organization will be able to recover data when it’s needed but it also helps meet compliance requirements. The downside is that finding and restoring individual records is both difficult and slow.

Magnetic tape is still in use today for transporting huge amounts of data. Considering that the risks of data loss and theft are at their highest during transport, transporting data sets between attorneys by a bonded carrier is still considered by many the safest way to move data. However, as public clouds become recognized for providing high levels of security, tape data transport will fade.

Still, magnetic tape technology has steadily advanced over the years stubbornly maintaining its place in the IT toolbox. It will be many years before the cloud displaces it.

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