The Federal Government’s shift to tapeless backups


December 11, 2014 – The Federal Government’s shift to tapeless backups

Some have been doing it for years, others have only just begun and the rest are playing catch-up. Federal government departments and agencies across the country are incorporating tapeless backup strategies into their environments at a rapid pace and the trend shows no sign of slowing.

Purpose Built Backup Appliances (PBBAs), utilising technologies such as de-duplication, replication and WAN optimisation are making what used to be a pipe-dream into a cost-effective, viable solution for enterprise environments.

International Data Corporation (IDC) have recently released a report which states the total capacity of PBBAs shipped worldwide in the second quarter of 2014 reached 487.5 Petabytes, an increase of 19.5% year over year.

The usual suspects lead the pack with EMC, Symantec and IBM all offering their own models with varying capabilities and capacity limits. While the true definition of a PBBA differs depending who you speak with one thing is certain, demand is increasing.

The idea of ‘going tapeless’ sounds enticing. It’s a brave new world, but is it all it’s cracked up to be? The storage vendors may say, ‘Yes’ but if you have Petabytes of data to protect, retention policies to consider and tightened purse strings does it really make sense?

The answer is, ‘It depends’. The volume of data, system complexity, budgetary, legislative and business requirements play a major part in the decision making processes.

Some types of data don’t de-duplicate well, so your backup storage may reach capacity a lot faster than expected.

Appliances can cost a lot of money to purchase, install and setup. You’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, or potentially more for a larger environment.

Some departments are required to retain backup or archival data for years, sometime forever. Is disk the best place to store this data?

When doing an initial cost analysis with a GB to GB comparison, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) will always be less when comparing tape to disk. The gap is set to widen further with the soon to be released LTO-7 cartridges said to achieve a native capacity of 6.4TB (up by 4TB over the current generation). This year Sony announced they have developed technology potentially allowing tape capacity of 185TB. Not to be outshone, FujiFilm announced soon after that in conjunction with IBM they have also come up with a way to somehow fit 154TB of data onto a standard cartridge. Now, I don’t know of anyone that would actually want to store that much data on a single tape (it sounds dangerous), but it shows that even after all of these years tape technology is still improving and you’ll continue to get more bang for your buck.

So why then are we seeing the increased trend of Government departments and agencies looking to phase out tape completely?

Here are a few of the main reasons we are hearing:

Administration Overheads – The time and man-hours involved in managing a backup environment with tape is much higher than a disk-only solution. Manually loading tapes, unloading tapes, off-siting tapes, storing tapes, ordering tapes, rinse and repeat. These tasks take up a lot of time and result in reduced productivity. The idea of having to send a staff member out to your remote office in Broome to remove a tape that’s stuck in a drive doesn’t sound like an efficient use of time. Nowadays teams are having to do more with less, particularly in a time of continuing workforce reductions, so being able to eliminate the time consuming activities is an attractive proposition.

Recovery Times – Recovery Time Objectives (RTOs) are dramatically reduced when using disk. The data is there on-hand, ready to be restored when required. No more waiting around for you backup tapes to be delivered. We live in an age of instant access and gratification so it seems ludicrous that we would still need to order back tapes, load them into a tape library and run a restore, just to get a lost timesheet back.

Minimise Hardware Footprint – The need for datacentre floor space in Australia is growing at exceptional rates. Being able to replace a primary backup server, media servers, and tape libraries with a single appliance is appealing. There is the added benefit of saving costs on electricity, hardware maintenance and rack space. The appeal increases when departments have a geographically dispersed environment and satellite offices.

Single Vendor Support – Your backups are failing with an ambiguous error and the logs are useless. Your backup vendor tells you it’s an issue with your OS. The next support guy says it could actually be hardware related. By the time you’ve worked out it’s actually your anti-virus causing the issue, a week of backups have failed and your hair is a little greyer. PBBAs have the added advantage of requiring only a single support vendor.

Anxiety is decreasing – Historically, departments have been apprehensive when it comes to storing all of their backups on disk. After all, tape has traditionally been the safest place to house your backup data. But with the constant talk of moving to the cloud, all of a sudden the on-ground disk-only backups don’t sound so scary. It is now a lot more acceptable to store backup data on disk at separate datacentres which effectively satisfies most offsite policy requirements. Removing tapes from an environment is seen to be the next logical step before we inevitably start backing up data to the cloud – The next iteration of tapeless backups.

Speaking of the cloud, a number of providers are continuing to entice decision makers with their Backup as a Service (BaaS) models. Cloud computing policies are maturing and these types of offerings will soon be harder for the government to ignore. Amazon Glacier for example, currently provide an archive class storage tier for less than 1cent/Gb/month. We’re a little way off seeing the Government send classified backup data to the cloud, but there’s no doubt that within a decade a fundamental shift in the data protection landscape will be well underway.

But back to today’s topic – At this point in time, is a tapeless solution the best way to go? There are lots of compelling reasons to make the switch however, there are still downsides to consider. Disk failure and data corruption does occur. Write speeds to disk are generally slower than to tape. The lifespan of disk is a lot less than tape. There will come a time when your storage vendor announces that they are no longer going support your appliance. What will happen to the Terabytes of valid backup images you have stored? ‘Easy, just purchase our new fandangled appliance and migrate everything across’, they’ll say.

Long term planning is required, particularly if you may want to switch storage vendor one day. It can be a difficult thing to achieve and more often than not an effective exit strategy is never even considered.

Weighing up these pros and cons can be overwhelming, there are many factors to take under consideration. Architects should consider the best of both worlds, using a hybrid model with tape supplementing disk where appropriate. Departments and agencies jumping onto the tapeless bandwagon without adequate planning, run the risk of creating an unmanageable and expensive solution that does not suit the business requirements… The very situation which may have prompted the change to go tapeless in the first place.

We may live in a world where the thirst for disk is unquenchable, but it’s safe to say that the trusty old backup tape will live on to play an important role for a while longer yet.

What are your thoughts, is the government right to be looking at phasing out backup tapes where possible? Do the pros outweigh the cons or vice versa?

Hugh Carter
Data Protection Consultant