Tape storage is one of the oldest and most cost-effective ways to back up large amounts of data. While disk and cloud storage have become more popular in recent years, tape remains a key part of many organizations’ data protection strategies. But is tape storage still an affordable option compared to other backup and archive solutions?
The cost of tape storage
Tape drives and media are significantly less expensive than disk storage on a per-gigabyte basis. An LTO-8 tape cartridge with 12TB native capacity costs around $150, which equates to just over 1 cent per gigabyte. In comparison, a 12TB enterprise-class HDD costs around $300 or 2.5 cents per gigabyte – over twice as much as tape. SSDs are even more expensive at around 6-7 cents per gigabyte.
In addition to lower media costs, the long shelf life of tape cartridges (typically 30 years or more) means the amortized cost of the media drops over time as it is reused. Tape has much longer data retention than HDDs, which normally need to be replaced every 4-5 years.
The downside is that tape storage requires an upfront investment in tape libraries and drives. Entry-level LTO tape drives start at $2,000-3,000, with larger libraries running from the tens of thousands to over $100k. However, these costs can be amortized over many years of use. Overall, the TCO (total cost of ownership) of tape is very competitive compared to other backup target options.
Tape storage TCO
Here is an example TCO comparison for a small business storing 50TB of data over 10 years:
|Storage type||Hardware cost||Media cost||Total cost (10 years)|
This shows that tape has the lowest TCO of the three options compared here. However, the economics can change based on the amount of data, retention period, and other factors.
Advantages of tape storage
In addition to its low cost, tape offers other advantages that make it an attractive backup and archiving solution:
- High capacity: A single LTO-9 tape can store 45TB compressed – much higher than other removable media.
- Long-term retention: Tape cartridges can store data for 30 years or more if properly stored.
- Energy efficiency: Tapes use zero energy when not being accessed.
- Portability: Tapes are small and lightweight making them easy to transport and store offsite.
- Reliability: Tape has a bit error rate up to 3 orders of magnitude better than enterprise HDDs.
Disadvantages of tape storage
Tape does have some downsides that make it less ideal for certain use cases:
- Slow data access: Tape is sequential access rather than random access like disk, so restores can be slow.
- Upfront costs: Tape drives and libraries have high upfront costs compared to other media.
- Bulk storage: Tape makes less sense for rarely accessed data needing fast retrieval.
- Staff overhead: Managing a tape library requires trained storage admins.
For these reasons, tape is now used almost exclusively for backup and archiving while disk handles primary storage and cloud stores inactive but more frequently accessed data.
Is tape storage obsolete?
With the rise of disk storage and cloud backup services, some wonder if tape is now obsolete. However, tape continues to offer unique advantages that make it relevant for modern data protection:
- Cost: Tape remains significantly less expensive than cloud storage for long-term data retention.
- Compliance: Regulations often mandate on-premises backups. Tape provides an air-gapped copy.
- Access: Tape provides access to data if the internet or cloud services are unavailable.
- Security: Tape stored offsite protects against physical disasters and malware.
Major technology vendors like IBM, Oracle, and Dell all continue to invest in tape technology and roadmaps. The latest LTO-9 specification provides 45TB capacity and 400MB/s throughput per tape.
Tape has successfully adapted to new use cases like archiving cold data that must be retained for compliance. Although tape has ceded primary and secondary storage roles to disk and cloud, it still fills an important niche for cost-effective long-term data retention.
Tape storage shipment statistics
Worldwide tape drive revenue totaled $975 million in 2021 and is forecast to grow to $1.32 billion by 2026 according to IDC. Tape cartridge sales exceeded 2016 levels and are expected to reach 248 million units annually by 2025.
|Year||Tape drive revenue||Tape cartridge shipments|
|2021||$975 million||165 million|
|2026 (projected)||$1.32 billion||248 million|
Rather than declining, tape revenue and shipments are on track for steady growth, confirming tape’s continuing role in the storage landscape.
Uses cases where tape makes sense
Here are some examples of use cases where tape is still the most cost-effective storage medium:
Regulatory retention requirements like financial records, medical data, and email archives often mandate data storage for 10-30 years. Tape’s low TCO makes it the cheapest solution for infrequently accessed data with long retention needs.
Offsite data protection
Storing tape cartridges at a secondary site protects against physical loss of data from disasters, theft, cyberattacks, or equipment failure. As a removable, offline medium, tape provides an added layer of data protection compared to only using onsite disk backups.
Backing up directly to tape reduces backup windows compared to first staging backups to disk. Backing up hundreds of terabytes to tape is often faster and cheaper than disk-to-disk-to-tape architectures.
Maintaining a local tape copy of data stored in the cloud provides faster restores plus an additional backup in case of an outage. It also reduces egress costs for retrieving cloud archives.
Factors impacting tape TCO
When evaluating the cost-effectiveness of a tape storage solution, here are some key factors to consider:
- Amount of data – more data favors tape’s economies of scale.
- Backup frequency – less frequent backups improve tape utilization.
- Retention period – longer retention lowers tape’s TCO.
- Number of tape copies – making multiple tape copies improves redundancy.
- rates – power and labor expenses contribute to TCO.
Modeling TCO under different scenarios can determine the break-even point where tape becomes cost effective compared to other storage tiers.
The future of tape storage
Tape is likely to continue playing a key role in data protection for the foreseeable future. Upcoming LTO-10 drives will boost native capacity up to 120TB per tape when released around 2025. Barium ferrite tape technology promises capacities of up to 185TB in the next decade.
In addition, new use cases are emerging such as:
- Hybrid cloud storage – Tape plus cloud for cost-effective, scalable archiving.
- Big data archive – Long-term storage for enormous datasets.
- Media archives – Long-term preservation for entertainment content.
- Genomic sequencing – Archiving astronomical amounts of genomic data.
Tape has successfully adapted over decades by improving density and performance while remaining cost competitive. While it has ceded primary storage to disk and flash, tape continues to excel at long-term data preservation at the lowest cost.
Tape storage requires more upfront investment than disk or the cloud, but its very low media cost and TCO makes it the most cost-effective solution for infrequently accessed data with long retention requirements. Tape sales and revenues continue to grow driven by long-term archiving, offline backups, and new big data use cases. While tape has limitations around access latency and recovery speed, its advantages for high-capacity, long-term data retention ensure tape will continue to be a key part of the storage landscape for the foreseeable future.