Is tape still used for backup?

Tape has historically been a popular medium for data backup and archiving due to its low cost and high capacity. However, with the rise of faster and more versatile technologies like cloud storage and disk-based backup, some have questioned whether tape remains relevant in the modern data landscape. This article examines the current role of tape, analyzing its advantages and limitations compared to alternative backup solutions. Key questions explored include:

  • What are the main use cases for tape in 2023?
  • How much data can modern tape cartridges hold?
  • What are the pros and cons of tape compared to disk and cloud backups?
  • What industries and organizations still rely heavily on tape?
  • Will tape remain viable for long-term archiving and compliance?

By weighing the capabilities of tape against other backup technologies, we can determine if it still has value for IT departments today. The article concludes with recommendations on when tape is – and is not – the right solution for backup and archiving needs.

What are the main use cases for tape in 2023?

Tape continues to be used in 2023 for these key data protection use cases:

  • Long-term archiving – Tape is well-suited for archiving data that needs to be retained for regulatory compliance or business purposes, but is rarely accessed. Tape cartridges stored offline can preserve data for 10-30 years.
  • Offsite data storage – Storing tape cartridges offsite provides an extra layer of protection against data loss in case of disaster at the primary site.
  • Backup copies – While disk handles primary backups due to faster restores, tape is used for secondary backup copies and data air gap protection.
  • Protecting large volumes of data – Tape scales efficiently to handle high capacity storage needs from hundreds of terabytes to exabytes of data.

These traditional strengths position tape as an appealing medium for cost-effective, long-term data retention and security. Its offline, power-efficient storage capabilities continue to differentiate it from always-online disk and cloud solutions.

How much data can modern tape cartridges hold?

The storage capacity of tape cartridges has increased enormously over the past decade, enabling each cartridge to hold terabytes to hundreds of terabytes of compressed data. Some key tape capacity benchmarks today include:

  • LTO-9 (Linear Tape Open 9th generation) – 18 TB native capacity per cartridge, up to 45 TB compressed.
  • IBM 3592 Jaguar – 10 TB native, up to 32 TB compressed.
  • Oracle T10000 T2 – 8.5 TB native, up to 24 TB compressed.
  • Sony Optical Disc Archive – 5.5 TB per disc.

The LTO roadmap envisions tape cartridge capacities continuing to grow, with LTO-10 slated to reach 48 TB compressed per cartridge. Similarly, Oracle and IBM have tapes planned to scale up to over 100 TB compressed in the next few generations.

Tapes may contain just a single volume or be partitioned into multiple smaller volumes using technologies like LTFS. Storage densities continue to climb with innovations like barium ferrite magnetic particles and nano-coated media.

What are the pros and cons of tape compared to disk and cloud backups?

Tape vs. Disk

Tape Disk
  • Lower cost per TB
  • Requires less power when not in use
  • Built for long-term archiving
  • Slower write and read speeds
  • Faster access for backup and restores
  • Easy integration with backup software
  • Disks have shorter lifespan (3-5 years typical)
  • More expensive per TB than tape

The choice between tape and disk often depends on the specific use case. Disk provides faster random accesses, while tape has the edge for bulk sequential throughput thanks to its linear format. For active archives where data needs to be frequently accessed, disk is preferable. But for colder data with infrequent access, tape offers a more cost-efficient solution.

Tape vs. Cloud

Tape Cloud Storage
  • Avoids recurring monthly fees
  • More control – data is stored locally
  • Can achieve air gap protection by going offline
  • Physical media must be stored and managed
  • Highly scalable, no capacity limits
  • Accessible from anywhere with internet connection
  • Cloud provider manages infrastructure
  • Monthly per GB/TB costs

For long-term archiving scenarios, tape has advantages over the cloud in avoiding recurring fees that can make the total cost of ownership higher over time. Tape also keeps data under internal control instead of relying on a third-party. However, the cloud offers greater accessibility and essentially unlimited capacity that tape can’t match.

Hybrid approaches that combine tape and cloud archiving may provide the best of both worlds – keeping rarely accessed data offline on tape while placing more active archives in the cloud.

What industries and organizations still rely heavily on tape?

A few industries stand out for their continued heavy reliance on tape for backup and archiving needs:

  • Media & Entertainment – The sheer volume of uncompressed video content makes tape attractive with its high capacities. Tape is used to store raw footage, completed projects, and for disaster recovery.
  • Healthcare – Hospitals, clinics and research centers have enormous archives of medical images and records that require long retention. Tape helps address HIPAA compliance and storage cost control.
  • Government – Public sector agencies like defense, tax authorities, and social servicesprograms generate vast amounts of data.Tape meets stringent security and retention requirements at scale.
  • Scientific research – Research sites such as high-energy physics, astronomy and genomics labs amass huge datasets. Tape offers reliable cold storage and data protection.

These sectors share data-intensive workloads and long data retention horizons. Tape has proven to be an efficient and secure medium for managing their ever-expanding archives over decades. While disk and cloud gain adoption, tape remains deeply entrenched in these organizations.

Will tape remain viable for long-term archiving and compliance?

Yes, tape is expected to continue playing an important role in archiving and regulatory compliance:

  • Stringent retention regulations like FINRA, SEC 17a-4, HIPAA, and PCI DSS explicitly permit tape as an approved archival medium.
  • 30-year media lifespans allow organizations to meet long-term retention obligations cost-effectively with tape.
  • Tape cartridges stored offline provide an air gap that reduces risk compared to always online media.
  • Roadmaps forecast continuing tape capacity and density improvements to keep pace with growing archive volumes.
  • Major cloud providers like AWS, Azure, and Google use tape for their own long-term backup needs.

Compliance-driven archiving requires that data remain readable and intact for years or decades. Tape has proven it can meet these demands at massive scales more affordably than primary disk storage. While newer technologies will play a role, tape’s portability, longevity, and offline protection capabilities ensure it will remain a key archival technology.


In 2023 tape continues to deliver tangible advantages for cost-efficient long-term data storage and protection. While ecosystem complexity and access latency make it less suitable for primary backups, tape remains an attractive choice for secondary backups, archives, and disaster recovery. Tape sales have declined but are stabilizing as tape holds enduring value propositions around capacity, scalability, portability and offline security.

Organizations with petabyte-scale archives, strong security requirements, and lengthy retention needs still find tape to be a crucial part of the data protection puzzle in 2023 and beyond. While future innovations may bring new economies and capabilities, tape is poised to continue serving vital data preservation roles for the foreseeable future.