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Back to the Future: New-Old Tech Protects Data in the Zettabyte Age

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By Peter Faulhaber

May 7, 2020

I’ve become accustomed to odd looks and lots of questions when I meet new people and tell them I’m in the data tape business. “Really? Tape? In 2020?” is a common response.

I can forgive some people — those who last touched a consumer VHS tape or audiocassette in the late 90s or early 2000s. I’ve come to really enjoy expanding their perspective, though, when I tell them that tape is a major workhorse in “the cloud” and that most of the household-name technology and internet companies are tape users. Business continuity, including several data protection applications is a big part of the reason why, along with tape’s low total cost of ownership and low energy consumption. I think we can all agree that economics and preserving the environment is key to continuity in its own right!

Information is Currency in the Zettabye Age
The worldwide datasphere is currently around 35 Zettabytes (that’s 35 billion Terabytes) and expected to be 175 ZB by 2025 — an estimated annual compound growth rate of 30%.  The odds are good you’re seeing a similar rate of data explosion in your own business. Everything today is born digital, not just “structured” data like databases but “unstructured” data such as spreadsheets, documents, presentations, video, audio and photographs. Add to that the appliances and devices in the “Internet of Things” — smart vehicles, smart planes, smart phones, smart homes, factories and cities. Then add to the mix artificial intelligence, machine learning, ecommerce, email, social media, gaming, surveillance, VR, mobile and more – you can see the path we’re on.

We keep all this data around for years and sometimes decades because it is potentially valuable enough to justify archiving or keeping online in an active archive.  Whether your business relies on archival video footage or photos, harvests data for sale to outside parties or uses information for internal streamlining, strategy, or planning, it’s become impossible to even imagine a modern business without data that is increasing in value.

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Flash, HDDs and Tape Slay Data Challenges

Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Rich Gadomski

At Storage Visions 2018, held in Santa Clara this past October, I had the opportunity to talk about the future outlook for tape as attendees wanted to know how they were going to store all the data that’s being created. The session I participated in was entitled “Epic Battles with Classic Heros – Flash, HDDs and Tape Slay Data Challenges.” As the title suggests, battling exponential data growth takes more than one storage media type to effectively handle the deluge of data that’s being created (now estimated to be 33 ZB in 2018 and growing to 175 ZB by 2025, according to IDC).

As our session moderator, Jean Bozeman from Hurwitz & Associates pointed out in her introduction, a variety of storage workloads create the need for a spectrum of storage technologies. Certainly the need for speed at the top of the storage pyramid is being addressed by performance HDD and increasingly by ever evolving solid state drives.

The need for longer term storage at scale is the domain of capacity HDD and of course, tape. Managing the data deluge is all about having the right data on the right storage medium at the right time. Not everything can or should be stored on expensive high performance flash. You need high capacity optimized media for long term data retention and that’s where HDD and tape come in to play (often in a user friendly active archive environment).

When it comes to the future of capacity in the domain of HDD, current perpendicular magnetic recording technology has reached  ‘super paramagnetic” limitations where increasing areal density to increase capacity is not a viable option. With helium filled HDDs, more platters can fit in the same form factor as air filled HDDs but this has not allowed a significant growth in capacity.  New technology concepts such as Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) and Microwave Assisted Magnetic Recording (MAMR) are on the horizon but market availability has been delayed. There is also the potential of vacuum sealed HDDs with better operating characteristics than helium that could help HAMR and MAMR HDDs get up to 40 – 50 TB at some point in the future.

But fundamentally, increasing capacity of a storage medium and ultimately reducing its cost is best achieved by increasing areal density. This is where magnetic tape technology really shines as today’s modern tape with per cartridge capacities already as high as 20 TB having very low areal densities compared to HDD.

Therefore, tape has a long runway before facing areal density limits and as a result, future tape roadmaps have the potential to achieve up to 220 TB on a standard form factor cartridge using Barium Ferrite (BaFe) magnetic particles and up to 400 TB using next generation Strontium Ferrite (SrFe). At the same time, both BaFe and SrFe can maintain magnetic signal strength integrity for at least 30 years making them ideal not only for high capacity but for cost effective long term data retention as well.

“No wonder the cloud guys are all using tape now,” exclaimed an attendee in the audience during the Q&A. They certainly also use a lot of flash and a lot of disk too. It is an epic battle and it takes a spectrum of storage technologies to slay the data challenges.

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