Dear FileSlinger™ clients, colleagues, and friends:
Tape of one kind or another is the oldest of computer backup technologies. For decades tape was the only way to store computer data. Computers inherited tape from teletype machines. These tapes were actually rolls of paper with holes punched in them in binary code. (See a photo.) At this point in time all computer data was kept on punch cards or punch tape.
By the 1950s, mainframes and supercomputers were using reel-to-reel magnetic tape to store and back up data. In the 1970s, quarter-inch cartridge tape (QIC) began to replace the half-inch reel-to-reel tape. By the 1980s, when I met my first computer (a Radio Shack TRS-80), QIC was the standard tape format for backing up standalone computers. By comparison with the reel-to-reel systems, a QIC drive was inexpensive, which made it more appealing to those with small businesses than the larger-format tape.
The Ur-Guru has this to say on the subject of QIC tape:
“They were slow as hell. The tapes often required a 1 or 2 hour format process prior to use, and they weren’t as reliable as people wanted to make you believe. In fact, those things in an environment with smoke would mean the drive would die within months.” (The Ur-Guru is a heavy smoker.) “Dust, etc. were also major killers. Cleaning the heads was like cleaning the head of a tape deck, but… usually after doing that things would not get better… often it got worse. In about 3 years time I must have gone through about five brands of QIC-80 tape streamers (250MB it was I believe) and probably a total of 10 drives.”
And we think backing up is a hassle now!
So who would want to use tape? Well, the only alternative at the time was 5.25-inch floppy disks, and for anyone running a business, particularly a software and graphics business as the Ur-Guru was, those weren’t an option. The files were too big to store on those disks. Even when 44 MB SyQuest disks came along, and then 100 MB ZIP disks, and eventually writable CDs, tape was still the least expensive way to store large quantities of data.
By that time QIC had been replaced by 8mm “helical scan” Digital Audio Tape (DAT). To hear tape drive manufacturers like Exabyte tell it, DAT was a wondrous revolution. It did allow for much more data stored on the same length of tape. It was, as the Ur-Guru points out, “Great for sound. Great for data. But unfortunately also not as secure and solid as manufacturers made you believe. Same issues, same problems. But cheaper for the tapes and a lot more expensive for the drive. I remember paying something like $2000 for my 12GB DAT streamer. However, it was the only way to do backups of large amounts because writing CDs was just too damn slow (2x and 4x speed writers being the top of the line at the time).”
Most owners of personal computers didn’t have large quantities of data, so floppy disks and ZIP disks were just fine for backup. (My parallel-port 100MB ZIP drive is still working, and I was able to get rid of a lot of floppies by getting it.) In fact, most owners of personal computers today—and that means most small and home offices—still don’t have large quantities of data relative to their other options for storage.
So who would want to use tape, and why? Stay tuned for next week’s Backup Reminder Newsletter and find out!