Tape vs Drives: Your LTO Questions Answered

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First introduced in 2000 and is currently in its 8th generation, LTO tape is as popular as ever. With LTO-9 expected to ship in Fall 2020, now is a great time to be considering whether or not LTO is a fit for your business. Backing up to bare-hard drives is a popular and cost-effective method for many small shops to archive material, but the potential disadvantages this approach can create long-term problems. As a widely used industry standard, the benefits of LTO tape backup can pay dividends to post professionals in the present and future.

While using bare hard drives for archive might be a cheap and easy option, a major issue with that approach is around how it can scale, because it decidedly does not. International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that the amount of data will reach​ 40 zettabytes by 2020, and more than 175 zettabytes a year by 2025. Shooting in 4K and 8K has become the norm for numerous productions, which means there’s that much more data to store. It doesn’t take long for that scale to overwhelm a process that utilizes bare hard drives for archive.

However, a traditional barrier for small shops using LTO has been the cost. Additionally, the downside of LTO has always been the planned obsolescence of LTO standards. As great as the capacity and reliability of reliability might be, these changes in standards means that every few years you might have to make a significant investment to migrate your data forward. So how can these additional costs be mitigated or avoided? What actually is the current state of backwards compatibility of LTO tape? How does LTO compare to some of the cloud-based archiving options that are being marketed now?

You have questions, we have answers.

What do small shops need to know about LTO backup and the cost?

As we mentioned, backing up to bare-hard drives is a popular and cost-effective method for many small shops to archive material. It can be difficult to push back against those kinds of practical differences, but the reality is that utilizing bare-hard drives can be a dangerous method of archiving for a number of different reasons.

We connected with our partners at SpectraLogic to outline the disadvantages of relying on bare-hard drives.

    • Support – if something goes wrong, you are stuck fixing it yourself.  If the person who built the system is no longer there, it can be difficult to manage and could possibly have to be rebuilt depending on complexity.
    • Longevity – Disk traditionally has a life of 3-5 years.  Bare disk-drives could be less, but the life is very unpredictable, and if they are stored outside a system that is monitoring it, the data could be inaccessible without you knowing.  With tape, when stored properly, can last over 30 years.
    • Durability – Tape-based storage offers superior durability over traditional disk-based storage
    • Portability – Tape cartridges can be ejected and transported to any location in the world for safekeeping or disaster recovery
    • Linear Tape File System – LTFS stored on tape can be accessed in the same way as data on disk and removable flash drives
    • Bit Error Rate vs Disk – To put into perspective how reliable tape is, it has a detected error rate of 1 x 1019 and an even more impressive undetected error rate of a single bit for every 1.6 x 1033 bits read. Compared to disk that has a detected error rate of 1 x 1016
    • Affordability – bare disk drives appear to be a low-cost option, but there is no storage on the planet that is cheaper than tape for long term data storage.

Our partners at mLogic succinctly laid out the disadvantages of using bare hard drives for archive by positioning it as a disaster waiting to happen.  If your media archive currently resides on spinning drives, it’s not a question of if you’ll lose data, but when you’ll lose data.

This cost comparison was interesting using the figures a typical creative content company would likely use of 200TB of storage. People today don’t think much past 4-5 years when it comes to content, so used 5yrs as the TCO mark. Some of it’s a bit subjective but it gives you the idea of TCO.

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Using bare hard drives for long-term archive has a couple of disadvantages. Namely, spinning disk has a 10% failure rate while drives need to be spun up and exercised from time to time. In addition to that, connectivity evolves over time so content needs to be migrated to newer drives year to year. The issue of obsolescence isn’t just about hardware though.

Avoiding obsolescence

One downside has always been the planned obsolescence of LTO standards meaning every few years you had to invest in new headward and migrate data forward. This is a valid concern and in a way is the Achilles heel of LTO.  However, when you look at cost invested in new computers, technology, connectivity, you’re trading one for the other. Upgrades need to be made over time regardless.  And as the question above regarding entry cost addresses, LTO is still much less when amortized.

Quantum Systems has mentioned that going forward, LTO will be backward compatible 1 generation starting with LTO 8. That means when customers purchase a library, they can purchase 5 years of service which allows them to almost get through 3 LTO generations. Their customers can still order LTO 2, LTO 3, LTO 4, & LTO 5 tapes which shows that the tapes will be in the market for many years after they are released into the market.

Cloud-based archiving options that are being marketed now are being positioned as mitigating some of the challenges associated with obsolescence. Many companies have invested in cloud realizing they’ll rarely if ever have to pull master footage back down. So if that’s the case, cloud is compelling. Much of the expense with the cloud comes from pulling data back down.

However, many people struggle to fully understand the cloud and how they actually make their money.  It is not in the storage of data, the money is made when data is moved and accessed (egress charges).  Here is a small example of how often a single file can be charged when using the cloud

    • Move it into S3:  Free
    • Move to Glacier or Deep Archive:  $/Request
    • Was it a file from a file system?  Go through object gateway:  $/file
    • Storage: $/month – (the only thing the cloud talks about)
    • Request from Glacier/Archive to “accessible” area: $/Request
    • Retrieval/Transfer from Glacier/Archive to “accessible” area: $/GB
    • Storage charge while on accessible tier:  $/month
    • If it’s edited/manipulated, put it back afterwards: $/request
    • Storage cost continues: $/month
    • Multiple copies/locations?  $/month

The costs inherent to maintaining significant amounts of data in the cloud can be prohibitive. There are also additional “ bandwidth” charges for accessing or restoring data.  LTO is proven to be a cheaper alternative for long-term archive.  And with LTO you physically have your data on cartridges with a 30+ year shelf life that cannot be compromised by online hacking.

The winner is…

There are many benefits of using LTO, the most important arguably being that an LTO tape cartridge has a 30+ year shelf life. However, some creative professionals and small shops don’t have the luxury of thinking that far into the future. They need the simplicity and cost-effectiveness that backing up to bare-hard drives offers. But there’s a different kind of cost associated with that approach.

Ultimately, although the upfront cost of LTO might be more, the overall cost for the lifetime of the solution will be less expensive with tape. That said, for organizations under 50 TB of total storage capacity needs, LTO tape probably isn’t the thing for you and the cost would not be beneficial. With the capacity advancements greater than the price increase of new generations, the cost per GB of storage continues to go down with each new generation meaning costs can be managed and harnessed even in rapidly growing environments where often budgets are not growing as fast as data is growing.

Since LTO tape cartridges are significantly cheaper than spinning drives on a cost per TB basis, you will eventually save money with LTO.  And more importantly, you will have peace of mind that your valuable content is properly archived for the long term. Is consideration for the future worth additional complications in the present? Those are the sorts of questions you need to ask in order to decide who’s the winner for you when it comes to tapes vs drives.