Do companies still use tape drives?

Tape drives were once a staple of data storage for businesses and organizations. However, with the rise of newer technologies like cloud storage and solid state drives, many wonder if tape drives are still commonly used today. In this 5000 word article, we’ll explore the current role of tape drives, who still uses them, why they are still relevant, and whether they have a future.

What are tape drives?

Tape drives are data storage devices that use magnetic tape to store digital information. Data is written to tape sequentially by a tape drive head. Tapes come in cartridges or reels that can be removed, archived, and replaced as needed.

Some key advantages of tape drives:

  • High capacity – A single tape cartridge can store terabytes of data.
  • Reliability – Tape drives have a long lifespan.
  • Portability – Tapes are compact and can be easily transported offsite for archiving.
  • Affordability – Tape drives are inexpensive compared to disks on a per-gigabyte basis.
  • Interchangeability – Tapes recorded on one tape drive can often be read by another compatible drive.

Tape drives were widely used for data backup through the 1980s to early 2000s. However, disk storage like RAID arrays gained popularity for backups starting in the 1990s. Cloud storage emerged in the 2000s as another alternative.

Who still uses tape drives?

While tape drives aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were, they are still used today by certain organizations and companies. Some of the main continued users of tape drives include:

  • Large enterprises
  • Data centers and cloud providers
  • Government agencies
  • Financial services companies
  • Scientific research facilities
  • Healthcare organizations
  • Audio and video production companies

These types of organizations often have very large data storage needs. Tape drives can offer a more cost-effective solution for long-term data archiving compared to disks. For example, the Large Hadron Collider project at CERN archives over 100 petabytes of physics data to tapes. Major tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Oracle use tape for archiving cold data. Banking and healthcare companies rely on tapes to store records long-term due to compliance requirements.

While tape may seem outdated, it still excels at high-capacity, energy-efficient, long-term storage. Tape cartridges stored offline can also provide an extra layer of data security not connected to a network. These benefits keep tape relevant for large, complex data environments today.

Why are tape drives still used?

There are some key reasons why tape drives are still used today despite newer technologies:

Cost savings

The biggest advantage of tape is its low cost per gigabyte compared to hard drives and flash storage. Tape costs about 1/6th the amount per terabyte versus enterprise SATA disks. This makes tape ideal for infrequently accessed “cold” data that needs long-term retention. It’s cheaper for an organization to archive cold data to tapes that can be stored offline versus keeping all data on expensive primary storage.


When stored properly, tape drives can have a lifespan of 30 years or more. Their shelf life exceeds that of hard drives. Tape cartridges stored offline are not subject to vibration or temperature changes that can impact HDD reliability. Media errors are very rare with tape. This makes tapes well-suited for long-term data retention.

High capacity

A single tape cartridge can store huge amounts of data, up to 15 TB for the latest LTO-8 tape format. This high capacity means fewer tapes are needed compared to lower capacity formats. The roadmap for future LTO formats calls for even greater capacities.

Energy efficiency

Tapes kept offline require no power. They have a much lower energy and environmental footprint versus spinning hard drives for archival storage. This can help organizations meet sustainability goals.


The compact size of tape cartridges makes them easy to transport for secure offsite storage. This supports disaster recovery plans. Transferring many terabytes of data to removable tapes is much faster than downloading over a network link. The portability of tape also enables inter-datacenter data transfers.

Network independence

Storing data offline on tape provides an air gap from the network and reduces exposure to cyberattacks like ransomware. Keeping archival data offline also avoids congesting the network. This reinforces tape’s value for data security and accessibility.

Long-term preservation

Regulatory and business requirements often mandate storing data for many years. For example, financial companies must keep records for seven years or longer. Healthcare organizations keep medical records for decades. Only tape can reliably store huge amounts of data for long time periods while minimizing costs.

What are the main use cases for tape drives today?

While tape drives have some clear benefits, they also have limitations. Tape best serves certain use cases versus trying to replace primary storage. Some of the top modern uses cases for tape drives include:

Archival and backup storage

The low cost of tape makes it ideal for archiving “cold” data that isn’t accessed frequently, such as older financial records, medical images, surveillance footage, etc. Tape works well for backup copies of primary disk storage. The offline nature of tape also provides an extra layer of data protection.

Disaster recovery

Keeping tape backups offline and offsite facilitates disaster recovery in case of site outages. This helps meet regulatory requirements for data recovery. Tape cartridges can also be easily loaded into vehicles and shipped to alternate sites during a disaster.

Big data and supercomputing

The high capacity and bandwidth of modern tape drives makes them useful for the huge storage needs of scientific research, genomics, seismic data, video rendering, and other big data applications. For example, Square Kilometer Array (SKA) uses tapes to record enormous amounts of radio astronomy data.

Cold storage in the cloud

Hyperscale cloud providers use tape for cost-effective cold storage rather than keeping lower-accessed data on expensive SSDs or HDDs. Amazon Glacier, Google Cloud Archive, and Microsoft Azure Archive Tier rely on tape infrastructure.

Media and entertainment

The media industry stores large video and audio files on tape for production and archiving. For example, Hollywood studios archive theatrical film reels to tape. Audio recordings are still laid down originally to tape before digital editing.

Data migration

Tapes ease data transfers from older storage systems to new platforms. Companies migrating data centers can copy data to tapes and physically ship them rather than transferring terabytes over the network.

Cloud backups

Backing up a large enterprise’s data to the cloud can be slow and costly over internet links. Writing backups locally to tape that can then be shipped for cloud archiving provides a workaround. AWS and other cloud providers support this tape-to-cloud workflow.

What are the alternatives to tape storage?

There are now multiple options that provide alternatives to traditional tape storage:

Disk arrays

Storage technologies like RAID arrays of high-capacity hard disks offer faster random access and transfer speeds compared to tape. Disks are priced higher per gigabyte but the total cost of ownership can be competitive with tape when factoring in tape infrastructure and personnel costs. Enterprise SAN/NAS disk arrays are common for primary and backup storage but are limited for long-term archiving needs.

Cloud storage

Public cloud storage offers flexible, infinitely scalable capacity without hardware management overhead. But bandwidth limits and egress costs can make the cloud prohibitively expensive for large archives. Retrieving bulk data from the cloud back on premises is also slow. Cloud data is typically replicated to multiple disks rather than kept offline, increasing costs.

Object storage

Object storage is an architecture that manages data as objects rather than blocks or files. It uses commodity infrastructure with built-in replication, erasure coding, and global namespace features. Object stores from vendors like Scality, Cloudian, and MinIO offer disk-based capacity at tape-like costs. But most object stores lack offline storage and portability.

Optical storage

Technology like Blu-Ray discs provide high-capacity offline storage with built-in integrity checking. But optical media lacks the density and durability of tape. Optical formats also suffer from a lack of standardization. Archival Blu-Ray isn’t widely supported.

Magnetic disk archive

Purpose-built devices like Amazon’s Glacier Deep Archive disk solution combine high densities with tape-like affordability. But the technology lacks maturity and still relies on power for storage. Long-term reliability and tape’s air gap protection are concerns versus true offline storage.

Does tape have a future?

Tape has successfully evolved over decades to continue serving its core strengths: long-term retention, air gap protection, and portability. With a projected 30-year roadmap already defined, vendors remain actively innovating tape technology and media.

Upcoming improvements include:

  • Increased capacities — LTO roadmap goes up to LTO-14 at 224 TB per cartridge.
  • Higher transfer speeds — LTO-9 specifies over 700 MB/sec native speeds.
  • Enhanced durability — Barium ferrite tape particles expected to support archival lifespans.
  • Backwards compatibility — LTO-9 drives can read and write LTO-8 tapes.

Tape is also being enhanced by new capabilities like LTFS for self-describing partitions and metadata tagging to improve archives. Given tape’s strengths for high-capacity cold data, it will continue to be relevant into the future even as newer technologies emerge. The unique value and cost proposition of tape is hard to beat for certain use cases.


While not as ubiquitous as in past decades, tape drives and media still continue to serve crucial data storage needs that align with their key attributes like high capacity, long retention, and offline portability. Massive growth in enterprise data is also fueling greater demand for affordable long-term storage, especially with compliance requirements mandating decades-long retention. New innovations are improving tape’s density, speed, and functionality.

Rather than being displaced by cloud or disk storage, tape occupies a complementary archival niche alongside these newer technologies. Tape provides unique air gap and energy efficiency benefits compared to always-online disk archives. When used appropriately for cold data retention, tape delivers major cost savings over primary disk storage. While alternatives like public cloud or object storage exist, they lack tape’s proven decades-long reliability and physical portability.

The bottom line is that tape makes economic and operational sense for certain storage use cases, many of which are growing rather than contracting. Media sets archived decades ago on tape are still recoverable today. For storing up to petabytes of cold data affordably for the long haul, tape can’t be beat. Any rumors of tape’s demise in the enterprise appear greatly exaggerated. Tape has stayed relevant by continually improving and will likely continue as an archival backbone for tomorrow’s massive-scale data storage needs.