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Sun: Tape storage evolving, not dead

Randy Kearns says despite IBM's old prediction, tapes will be around for quite a bit--just with different roles.

Magnetic tape data storage may have been around for more than half a century, but systems administrators will be stuck with it for some time, according to one of Sun Microsystems' top storage executives.

"Tape's going to be around for a long time," Randy Kearns, vice president of Sun's new Data Management Group, said in the wake of the finalization of Sun's $4.1 billion acquisition of primarily tape-focused vendor StorageTek.

However, Kearns is seeing changing patterns of usage for the venerable sequential-access medium, which is primarily used for backing up data stored on servers.

The changes come as organizations are faced with an increasing need to comply with government regulations dealing with short- and long-term storage of company records.

"Customers are changing the way they do backups.

"Tapes aren't going to be the backup medium of choice, but they're going to be the long-term retention medium of choice.

"It's going to be the archives, and it's going to be the generational copies that they never get back," Kearns said.

He claimed that customers have started to use disk-based systems for their daily backup needs. "You always thought about tape for backup, but that's going to be more other technologies, disk-to-disk stuff, and continuous data protection stuff," the United States-based executive told ZDNet Australia. He was in Melbourne to speak with partners, customers and staff last week.

The disk migration, Kearns said, had probably begun about two years ago, when high-speed and Serial ATA, or SATA drives hit the market, "establishing a new price point for disk."

"It's been going on, and we're seeing different solutions, certainly disk-to-disk stuff has been a big deal," Kearns said. "But now we're starting to see some continuous backup products out on the market...things where we just keep track of changes and keep multiple generational backups--being able to establish a recovery time objective."

The new systems have some drawbacks: They take up a lot of energy and consequently aren't economical for data that doesn't need to be accessed frequently.

"What we're seeing is that (tape's) still the most economical and environmentally friendly long-term storage," Kearns said. "If you're spinning disk and things like that, the power consumption and volumetric issues and so on are onerous."

Automation may also play a bigger part in future.

"Tape automation is really going to be the main thing, in that you're going to see big libraries, the robotics in them to handle tapes, so we get the human element out as much as possible," Kearns said.

According to the Sun executive, the death of tape has been predicted falsely now for some time.

"I worked at IBM a long time, and I think it was 1974 that I was working in their general practice division in Colorado," Kearns recalled. "The head of the general practice division said to us in an all-hands meeting there that IBM believes that tape is dead and (that) we should be getting out of tape."

"IBM did indeed get out of tape, and that's what made StorageTek successful," Kearns said. "Then IBM got back into tape, and now they're No. 2 in the tape business, and StorageTek is No. 1.

"So tapes are going to be around for a long time. The roles are going to be a little different and changing, but that's just the way it is."

Renai LeMay of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.