Balancing the Past of Legacy Tape with the Future of Cloud Storage

Topics: Data Backup and Archiving | Data Management

By Michele Hope

Over the last 12 years, IT has moved away from traditional tape solutions for data protection and disaster recovery. Disk-based recovery has proven itself to be faster and easier. In more recent times, the Cloud has also been embraced as a simpler way to manage fast, offsite recovery. Despite such advances, a serious challenge remains: How to restore data from now-retired or legacy systems.

What to do with legacy backup tape, often from now-retired systems, is a major issue for organisations that have since embraced newer disk and cloud options for data protection and disaster recovery.

For them, petabytes of legacy tape must still be managed and maintained. IT departments must still ensure on-going access to this data in order to comply with current and future regulatory requirements, litigation or eDiscovery requests. For many IT teams, such needs often translate into one of two common outcomes. The first is to maintain silos of legacy backup software licenses and legacy tape systems "just in case" they receive a recovery request. The second choice is to retire the hardware in the belief that the old systems can be recreated, if needed, at some future point.

Each of the above options can have significant and unintended consequences, however. Is there a good way for IT organisations to effectively look to the future with new disk and cloud backup technologies, yet still properly maintain their past? Should they continue supporting tape? Decommission their older tape backup systems? Migrate legacy data to newer tape or disk formats or even to the cloud? All of the above? The following are some considerations to take into account when making these decisions.

Pros and Cons of Decommissioning Legacy Tape Systems

As organisations streamline IT operations to more quickly meet business needs, they might like nothing better than to decommission or consolidate legacy or current tape silos. There are compelling arguments for this approach, especially if the organisation backs up current data to a disk or the Cloud. Such a move could free capital expenditure costs associated with the licensing of legacy software, as well as the maintenance and acquisition of replacement tape system hardware. It could also free up valuable data centre space. Further, IT staff previously consumed with tape management would be able to spend their time on more high-value IT projects.

However, issues remain with decommissioning tape and tape systems. What happens to the stacks of old backup tape? If an organisation needs access to tape content, how much time and money would be involved in looking for older legacy software and tape hardware, let alone finding the specific data on a specific tape? Then, there is the issue of IT staff attrition and tight budgets. Maintaining a mix of tape, disk and cloud solutions can be difficult for a budget constrained IT organisation. In addition, when tape in older formats is no longer backward-compatible with current versions, how much time could IT staff spend learning the ropes of older systems just to obtain the data required?

Significant, Variable Costs of Tape Discovery and Data Retrieval

The need to find and retrieve data from legacy backup tape is often associated with eDiscovery requests. In this area, past history and average estimates tell a daunting tale. While tape is relatively cheap to buy and store data in large quantities - compared to maintaining the same amount of legacy data on spinning disk - the variable costs of tape can spike quickly when it comes to retrieving certain data from a large volume of legacy tape.

An account by ARMA demonstrates these issues, referencing observations from one court case on backup tapes. The court said "each backup tape may take anywhere from several minutes to five days to restore." Based on this assumption, the source concludes that multiplying this effort by the total number of tapes from just one machine can soon cause costs to spiral.

Mark Karnick, chief information officer at the law firm Glaser Weil, knows something about this issue as well. In a FierceCIO article on the increased role of IT in eDiscovery, Karnick claimed backup tapes "might be the most expensive type of forensic function there is. You have to figure out what's on the tape and then replicate the system that was originally used so you can pull the data off of them."

There is no doubt that tape-based discovery comprises a large part of the variable costs of litigation. One 2014 report published by K&L Gates says the most expensive part of legal preservation is the variable cost involved when employees take time away from other business activities to find data associated with a litigation hold. In the report, William Hubbard, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School, claims that lost employee time can account for "perhaps 90% of total costs" of preservation. He estimates the variable cost can range anywhere from $12,000 (£8,600) per year for smaller companies to more than $38 million (£27.2 M) annually for the largest companies surveyed in the report.

How to Have Your Tape and Read It Too

There are costs involved in keeping tape around for an extended time, but the most significant and least predictable ones are the variable costs. Can organisations still use disk, cloud and tape without getting a nasty surprise on variable tape costs?

One place to look for a solution is the emerging area of subscription-based managed tape and restoration services. For years, companies have relied on third parties to store legacy tape in secure, climate-controlled vaults. For an ongoing fee, secure storage was assured. What has been harder to plan for, however, is the variable cost in retrieving and searching large amounts of stored tape data.

Just as new options have evolved with disk and cloud, new tape management options have also come to market. Here, organisations should look for service providers that combine the manageable costs of offsite tape vaulting with fixed, subscription-based managed restoration services that can define a process workflow specific to the organisation's needs. By ensuring a company's older tape data can be restored or migrated at any point using the pre-defined process, these services offer new options for companies that want a more fixed, predictable cost.

Through these types of predictable costs, IT organisations gain restoration assurance for their old tapes, while being able to focus on other business initiatives. For further cost savings, options such as decommissioning old equipment, tape remediation or planned data migration can then be revisited. Legacy backup software licenses and infrastructure can be shut down, archival tapes can be stored offsite as long as needed, restoration access is guaranteed, and current and go-forward data can be backed up to disk or the Cloud.