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NetApp Cloud Backup

Tape Backup Alternatives: Why It’s Time for Tape Modernization and How to Do It

October 18, 2022

Topics: Cloud Backup Backup and ArchiveAdvanced

When it comes to backup and archiving, some organizations depend entirely on tape storage. As tape-based backups are retained offline, they incur fewer hardware costs while remaining isolated from common attack vectors and inherent architecture vulnerabilities. But cloud backup solutions are presenting new tape backup alternatives.

There’s a good reason for tape backup users to look into these solutions. Tapes are operationally complex to maintain and too inefficient to support agile workflows.

In this article, we discuss why organizations should modernize tape backups with up-to-date backup storage options and tape backup alternatives, such as cloud-based and object storage. We also learn the various stages of a tape modernization roadmap and the various approaches organizations can leverage when embarking on a modernization journey.

Read on or jump down using the links below:

Why Should You Modernize a Tape Backup Environment?

While tape storage offers an inexpensive, secure, and reliable platform to store cold data, it is known for slower data throughput and recovery. Considering modern workloads operate on high-performance architectures for faster processing, switching to the latest tape backup alternatives can improve application performance, data handling, and optimize backup storage costs. Transitioning to a modern backup environment, such as one built on object storage, can also help organizations retain backups which offer augmented compatibility with innovative cloud services and features.

Modern backup storage solutions like object storage reduce access latencies by omitting human intervention and relying on highly-efficient network connections for data transfers. Depending on the migration strategy, modernizing the storage schema further supports the administration of robust security controls for both physical and virtual environments.

Challenges of Managing Tape-Based Backup Environments

Some common challenges of managing tape environments include:

  • Lack of immediate and comprehensive accessibility

    Tape formats do not allow for true random data access. This is often due to tape environments requiring manual intervention for updating and exchanging existing backups. Those actions typically result in significant downtime.

    Due to intermittent, scheduled backup update cycles (usually once a night or once a week), the environment is mostly ineffective for today’s agile workflows, which are reliant on rapid cache and access cycles. Responding to a ransomware attack is a common use case where an organization will need rapid access to its backups to continue to run its business, a role that tape backups can’t sufficiently fulfill.

  • Low durability due to mechanical failures

    Tape disks are required to be stored in clean environments free of dust or corrosive particulate-matter that might scratch or otherwise affect the magnetic coating of the tape. Additionally, tape cartridges degrade over time with changing climatic conditions.

    Due to their fragile nature, tapes are also recommended to be handled cautiously when being transferred between data centers, as any mechanical perturbations may lead to the loss or corruption of stored data. Additionally, replacing tapes due to any damage is a major cost concern.

  • Limited backward compatibility

    Archiving tape systems are only backward-compatible for a generation or two. While the drives are assured to last for decades, software and firmware can both change frequently with new releases and security updates.

    Among various tape storage standards, most offer a maximum of two generations of backward compatibility. Additionally, migrating workloads to newer generations requires a costly and time-consuming overhaul of the storage abstraction and reconfiguration of tape drives.

  • Security

    While the offline characteristic of tape storage makes them inherently safe from commonly exploited attack vectors, tape backups are also vulnerable to cyberattacks. Vulnerabilities may allow hackers to physically access storage sites, reshuffle tape cartridges, or corrupt entire batches of backups.

    Physically transferring tape cartridges also makes data susceptible to real-world hijacking attacks that would result in backup unavailability and information abuse. As the only method to catalog tape cartridges is to label them using critical information, an unauthorized user can access targeted organizational data while switching legitimate backup with a malicious script for orchestrating deeper, system-level attacks.

How Can You Start Your Tape Modernization Journey?

As a promising tape backup alternative, cloud-based object storage offers a number of benefits.

As with all of the cloud, object storage can scale much more efficiently when compared to tapes. Object storage in the cloud makes the storage admin’s job easier by automating data retrieval, storage, and cataloging. Object storage also enhances data durability by eliminating media failure of tape libraries. And while object storage is frequently synonymous with the cloud, it doesn’t have to be. Object storage is available on physical storage systems, such as NetApp StorageGRID® appliances, which offer a way to keep backup systems entirely on-prem while modernizing the storage media.

The cloud also offers differing levels of cold storage, making it very cost effective to store archive data. Click here to read more about the archive tiers available in the cloud.

Despite the cloud presenting a new paradigm in data storage, tapes are still widely used for storing large capacities of archives and data backups. As modern tape formats integrate seamlessly with the cloud, adopting a hybrid storage framework helps amalgamate features of both tape and a cloud-native ecosystem. Yet, modernizing legacy tape storage does not necessarily imply cloud adoption, and may differ with use cases and business objectives.

There are cases where tapes can fill a niche in backup strategy, such as presenting one of the alternate storage formats required to align with the 3-2-1 backup strategy. But object storage can also fill that requirement, with much more performant results.

A Typical Tape Modernization Roadmap

Modernizing tape storage is often misconstrued as a straightforward process of copy-pasting data from a tape platform to a modern one. On the contrary, there are several stages of due-diligence that are required to be followed as part of the modernization roadmap. These include:

  • Review existing data protection policies

    Backed up data is logically protected by security policies and procedures to prevent data loss and cyberattacks. When modernizing tape storage, it’s important to discard policies that exclusively belong to the tape environment, while also adopting those that administer security in a cloud-native or object-based ecosystem.

    As an audit to streamline backup policies, a thorough review of legacy data protection policies ensures only critical tasks are included. The approach reduces the effort and cost overheads of ensuring data integrity, confidentiality and authenticity before and after the migration.

  • Create and streamline the tape inventory

    Some tape storage facilities lack manifested order since there may be no human interaction with cartridges and storage centers. In such instances, some tapes within the storage center may lack labels, while others may have been decimated after years of use.

    Before initiating a modernization journey, it’s important to organize and catalog each tape to ensure existing tapes are in working condition and carry retainable data.

  • Validate all backup and replication jobs

    Most IT staff and archiving specialists lack visibility into object and data changes that have been implemented over time. As a recommended practice, IT teams should periodically review saved backup and replication jobs to ensure that the data being saved is accurate, purposeful, and manifested appropriately.

    Periodic validation and cleanup of backups are essential parts of the data lifecycle management cycle because it increases data storage capacity on hand while improving performance, whether using tape or an alternative method for backup, such as object storage.

  • Coordination among networking and security professionals

    Tape modernization involves replicating portable cartridges with an electronic media in an offsite location. To move terabytes of backup data, this replacement relies on a seamless network of robust bandwidth and minimal latency.

    As data in transit during an electronic archival job is considered vulnerable to cyberattacks, backup administrators should coordinate with security researchers for comprehensive threat modeling. The implementation should also form the foundation of robust security policies to uncover vulnerabilities, counter threats, and define an escalation matrix to tackle active security incidents.

  • Choosing the migration strategy

    Once the initial stages of due diligence are complete, the final stage is to initiate copying the data from tapes to a more up-to-date storage service. Depending upon respective use cases, organizations can leverage either one or a combination of the following three approaches for migration:

    • Tape-to-Cloud Migration

      A lift-and-shift migration strategy that requires the entire storage framework to be moved to the cloud. While the move introduces capital expenditures in the short term, it reduces long-term data ownership costs, making it ideal for organizations looking to scale quickly. Cloud-based object storage presents a perfect target for this data, and is widely available in all the clouds, namely on Amazon S3, Azure Blob, and Google Cloud Storage.

    • Tape-to-On-prem Migration

      This approach is commonly adopted by organizations with security or regulatory concerns, which requires data from offsite backup centers to be brought to the storage networks and servers of an on-prem infrastructure. Object storage can also be a target for such on-prem migrations, in the form of object storage repositories like StorageGRID.

    • Hybrid Migration

      A best-of-both-worlds approach in which the backup is migrated both to a public/private cloud and an on-prem setup. As the strategy requires minimal alteration to existing workloads, it is often preferred by organizations that require the right mix of stability and scalability. Backup is considered a particularly good workload to send to the cloud in such hybrid environments.

Ready to Find Your Tape Backup Alternatives?

Tape-based storage have been in use for decades since they are reliable, deliver unmatched protection from malware, and cost significantly less when compared to other storage options. However, there are limitations to ponder and reasons to look for modern backup solutions, such as the cloud and object storage.

Cloud Backup from NetApp provides an easy way for ONTAP users to modernize their backup storage systems by transitioning from tape to object storage either in the cloud on Amazon S3, Azure Blob storage, and Google Cloud Storage or on-premises with StorageGRID appliances.

Cloud Backup can even supply the archiving and long-term retention use cases for which tape storage is still commonly relied on. Since it’s fully integrated with ONTAP systems, Cloud Backup also makes transitioning to cloud-based storage an easy first step to the cloud for organizations without any cloud footprint, providing a migration path that is non-disruptive, scalable, and cost effective while supporting business agility.

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Are tape backups still used?

Tape backups are still in use in a wide range of organizations. This is mainly due to the benefits that come from storing these drives offline: they are easily isolated from online threat vectors, and they have relatively low infrastructure overheads.

What is the main disadvantage of tape storage as a backup?

The major drawbacks to tape-based backup storage are lack of immediate and comprehensive accessibility, low durability due to mechanical failures, limited backward compatibility, and security concerns. These challenges all come with considerable cost concerns attached to them.

What replaced tape backups?

The main technology replacing tape-based backups is the cloud. The cloud offers storage that is pay-per-use and infinitely scalable, without any infrastructure overheads for the user to worry about.

Semion Mazor, Product Evangelist

Product Evangelist