Last week’s newsletter provided some of the history of tape as a backup medium. But what’s the status of tape today? Why would you choose tape over optical storage (CDs & DVDs) or external hard drives? Are tape backups a viable option for small or home office users?
Tape storage has definitely not gone the way of the 5.25” disk. In fact, tape is big business. And, for the most part, tape is also for big businesses. Your ISP undoubtedly has a huge automated tape storage facility where robotic arms insert and remove tapes as needed to handle the unbelievably large amounts of data hosted on its servers.
The great advantage to tapes is that they can be shipped off site to a secure facility. You don’t really want to put your external hard drive in the mail. Also, tapes themselves cost less per GB of storage than drives do, though not very much less, at the rate hard drive prices are dropping. Tape is also (as the manufacturers keep pointing out) a proven medium. For many companies, tape has been a way of life for decades, and replacing tape with a different medium would be far too expensive as a capital investment. Tapes have a 30-year shelf life (in proper storage conditions, which does not mean the real world); CDs and DVDs haven’t even been around for 30 years yet, and are vulnerable to “rot.”
But back in SOHO-land, if you’re still shopping around for backup solutions and haven’t already invested in a tape drive, how does tape stack up against its competition?
Not too well, in my opinion.
Say you get one of Exabyte’s sleek VXA-1 external tape drives. The SCSI model costs about $900, plus $100 or more for a SCSI controller if you don’t have one; the FireWire (1394) model will run you about $1000. It comes with one 66GB tape. To do tape backups properly, you need 7-10 tapes (or sets of tapes if the drive you’re backing up is more than 66 GB), because you have to rotate them. (Among other reasons for this, overwriting a single tape too many times damages it.) Tapes cost about $70 apiece.
By comparison, you can get a CD/DVD-writer for under $200, though even the new double-density DVDs only hold about 9 GB of data, so you’d need seven of them to equal a 66 GB tape, and DVDs are more expensive per GB than tapes are.
And you can get a Maxtor One-Touch II 250 GB external hard drive for about $250. That’s almost four tapes’ worth.
You can buy both the DVD burner and the XHD for less than the cost of the tape drive and tapes, and send the DVDs offsite. As for the shelf-life issue, how often are you going to need data that’s 30 years old?
In most cases, tape is not going to be the backup medium of choice for independent professionals with only one or two computers. Once you start getting into the “small-and-medium-sized business” (SMB) range, tape becomes a more viable option. Once you’ve got a network in place and a cluster of computers to back up, things get more complicated. At that point Exabyte’s $3000 10-tape autoloader may start to look like a good deal.
But even then there are alternatives, such as Highly Reliable Systems’ multi-bay hard drive and DVD backup systems or the Mirage Virtual Tape Library, which can read and write data much faster than tape drives. Tape, no matter what its good points, is a linear medium, and computer tapes are prone to all the same problems as audio and video cassettes.
If you prefer DVD to VHS for your movies, why would you want tapes for your computer?