What tape is used for data backup?

Tape has been used for data backup since the 1950s. In the early days of computing, large reel-to-reel tapes were used to store data for mainframe computers. As technology advanced, different formats of tape emerged including QIC, DLT, LTO, and more recently, Oracle Tape and TS1150. Tape continues to be a popular medium for backup and archiving due to its portability, long shelf life, and low cost per gigabyte compared to disk.

What are the most popular tape formats used for backup?

Over the years, there have been many different tape formats used for backup, but the most popular in recent years have been LTO and Oracle Tape.

LTO Tape

LTO (Linear Tape Open) tape is one of the most widely used formats for backup and archiving. Developed in the late 1990s through a consortium of major technology companies including IBM, HP, and Seagate, LTO aimed to create an open standard tape format to replace the proprietary formats that existed at the time.

LTO tape comes in several “generations” with different capacities:

  • LTO-1 – 100 GB native capacity (200 GB compressed)
  • LTO-2 – 200 GB native capacity (400 GB compressed)
  • LTO-3 – 400 GB native capacity (800 GB compressed)
  • LTO-4 – 800 GB native capacity (1.6 TB compressed)
  • LTO-5 – 1.5 TB native capacity (3 TB compressed)
  • LTO-6 – 2.5 TB native capacity (6.25 TB compressed)
  • LTO-7 – 6 TB native capacity (15 TB compressed)
  • LTO-8 – 12 TB native capacity (30 TB compressed)
  • LTO-9 – 18 TB native capacity (45 TB compressed)

Each generation is backwards compatible with the previous generation. LTO tape drives can read and write to tapes from the current generation and read tapes from the two prior generations. For example, an LTO-8 drive can read and write LTO-8 tape, read LTO-7 and LTO-6 tapes, but cannot write to LTO-7 or LTO-6 tapes.

LTO tape is a popular choice for backup and archiving for businesses and organizations with large amounts of data. The high capacity, low cost, and reliability make it well-suited for these applications.

Oracle Tape

Oracle tape is Oracle’s proprietary magnetic tape format designed for use with Oracle systems. Oracle tape comes in two product families – Oracle T10000 and Oracle T2.

Key specifications of Oracle tape formats include:

  • Oracle T10000 T2 – 8.5 TB native capacity, 26 TB compressed capacity
  • Oracle T10000 T1 – 5 TB native capacity, 15 TB compressed capacity
  • Oracle T10000 – 1 TB native capacity, 3 TB compressed capacity

Oracle tape offers very high capacities with fast transfer rates. This makes Oracle tape well-suited for backup and archiving for Oracle databases and applications. The T10000 T2 format provides over 2x the native capacity of LTO-8 tape.

The main downside of Oracle tape is that it requires Oracle tape drives and libraries. So it is primarily used by Oracle shops running Oracle databases and applications.

What are the main factors to consider when choosing a tape format?

There are several key factors to consider when selecting a tape format for data backup:


How much data needs to be backed up? Choose a tape format that has sufficient native and compressed capacities to meet backup requirements. LTO-8 provides 12 TB native, 30 TB compressed. Oracle T10000 T2 offers even greater capacity at 8.5 TB native, 26 TB compressed.


Select a widely supported tape format that will remain compatible with future tape generations. Open standards like LTO are supported across vendors and generations. Proprietary formats like Oracle tape only work with Oracle systems.


What is the budget for backup tapes and drives? LTO tape has a lower cost per terabyte compared to Oracle tape. But Oracle provides greater capacities to reduce the number of tapes required.


Consider transfer speeds, seek times, and load/unload times. LTO-8 provides transfer speeds up to 360 MB/sec native. Oracle T10000 T2 enables transfer rates up to 252 MB/sec native.

Drive Availability

Is it easy to obtain drives and media for this tape format? LTO tape drives and media are widely available from multiple vendors. Oracle tape drives are proprietary to Oracle.


How long will this tape format be supported and available? Open standards like LTO have a longer lifespan than proprietary formats. LTO has been available for over 20 years with a defined roadmap.

What are the main tape drive technologies for backup and archiving?

The primary tape drive technologies for backup and archiving include:

LTO Tape Drives

LTO tape drives can read and write LTO-8 tape and read LTO-7 and LTO-6 tapes. Key vendors include IBM, HP, Quantum, Spectra Logic. Drives are available as internal or external attached over Fibre Channel or SAS.

Oracle Tape Drives

Oracle tape drives support Oracle’s T10000 and T2 tape formats. They provide very high capacity capabilities but are designed specifically for Oracle environments.

TS1150 Tape Drive

Oracle’s TS1150 drive supports both T10000/T2 Oracle tape formats as well as LTO-8 tape. This provides investment protection for heterogeneous environments using both Oracle and open standard tape.

IBM 3592 Tape Drives

IBM’s proprietary 3592 tape format has models that can store up to 10 TB native per cartridge. But compatibility is limited to IBM environments.

What are the main types of tape libraries used for backup?

Tape libraries automate the loading and unloading of tape cartridges and are used to provide consolidated access to large numbers of tapes. Main types of tape libraries include:


Basic tape autoloaders allow sequential access to tape drives and cartridges. They typically support up to 8 tape drives and up to 100 cartridges.

Tape Libraries

Tape libraries provide robotics for random access to a larger set of tape slots and drives. Mid-range libraries support up to 1000 slots and up to 16 drives. High-end libraries can scale up to 10,000+ slots and 100+ drives.

Oracle StorageTek Tape Libraries

Oracle’s StorageTek libraries are optimized for Oracle environments and integrate with Oracle’s tape management software. Models scale from mid-range to high-end capacities.

What are the advantages of tape for backup and archiving?

Tape offers several key advantages that make it well-suited for backup and archiving:

  • High capacity – Tape cartridges continue to increase in capacity, providing terabytes of storage in a small form factor. LTO-9 offers 18 TB native capacity per cartridge.
  • Low cost – The per gigabyte cost of tape is very low compared to disk, optical or cloud storage.
  • Long term retention – Tape cartridges can have a shelf life of 30 years or more for long-term data retention.
  • Portability – Tape cartridges are small and can easily be transported offsite for disaster recovery.
  • Reliability – When stored properly, tape provides very reliable and stable storage due to the magnetic encoding.
  • Energy efficiency – Tape consumes very little energy compared to spinning disk for cost-efficient storage.

These capabilities make tape ideal for backup, disaster recovery, archive, and cold storage use cases.

What are the limitations of tape compared to other backup media?

Tape also has some limitations that are important to be aware of:

  • Sequential access – Tape can only be read or written sequentially from start to finish, not randomly accessed like disk.
  • Slower performance – Disk and flash offer much faster read/write speeds compared to tape.
  • No in-place updates – Tape does not allow updating data in-place, a whole new backup is written.
  • Bulk erases – To reuse or overwrite a tape, the entire cartridge must be erased first.
  • Drive requirements – A compatible tape drive is required to access data on a tape.
  • Mechanical parts – Tape drives contain more moving parts than disk or flash and require proper maintenance.

Due to these constraints, tape is not optimal for primary or active storage. But for data that does not need frequent, random access, tape provides unbeatable value for backup and archiving use cases.

What are best practices for using tape in a backup infrastructure?

To maximize the value of tape for backup, it is important to follow best practices:

  • Use disk or snapshots for rapid backup and restore of recent data.
  • Automate moving older backups from disk to tape on a schedule.
  • Store multiple full backups on tape along with incremental backups.
  • Validate all backups by periodically restoring from tape to disk.
  • Monitor tape drive and media health to catch issues early.
  • Clean tape drive heads regularly to maintain performance.
  • Use high quality tapes designed for long-term archiving.
  • Handle tapes carefully and store in a temperature controlled environment.
  • Maintain offsite copies of backup tapes for disaster recovery.

Following these best practices helps organizations realize the full benefits of tape for cost-effective, long-term data retention.

What are some examples of companies that use tape backup?

Many notable companies across industries rely on tape as part of their larger data backup and recovery strategy:

  • Financial – American Express, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley
  • Technology – Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft
  • Healthcare – Anthem, UnitedHealth Group, Quest Diagnostics
  • Insurance – State Farm, MetLife, Prudential
  • Retail – Walmart, Target, Kroger
  • Energy – ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP
  • Manufacturing – General Motors, 3M, Caterpillar

Tape’s portability, long retention capability, and low TCO make it an essential component of the backup strategy for these large enterprises.


In summary, LTO and Oracle tape formats offer the best combination of capacity, compatibility, cost, and performance for enterprise backup and archiving environments today. Organizations should evaluate factors like current and future capacity requirements, budget considerations, and compatibility with existing infrastructure when selecting a tape format. Following best practices for utilizing tape in the data protection strategy can provide businesses with an efficient long-term retention platform for critical data assets.