Decentralize Your Damn Data - Part 3 - Tapes

Tagged: data & files & storage & decentralized

Decentralize your data - Part 3

This is part 3 in a 4 part article about long term storage solutions for personal data. Read the 1st part at Decentralize Your Damn Data about using hard drives including SSD. Read the 2nd part at Burn your data about archiving with optical media.

Tape / LTO

Since the beginning of time, storage media has been a locked battle between tapes - loooong thin strips reeled around a core - and flat discs that rotate below a read head. And for backups, tapes have long been respected for their capacity and long term stability without needing the random access agility that the layout of a disc provides. And like discs, there have been many generations of formats which have improved in speed and capacity while breaking backwards compatibility.

Some of you may remember cassette tapes and these were used not only for audio but for digital computer storage. I recently learned that back in the 80s in Serbia (Yugoslavia at the time) DJs would tell their listeners to start recording onto tapes and then they would broadcast free software over the airwaves. But most people recently probably have not touched any form of tape storage for computers.

The 90s saw a number of companies come out with proprietary tapes and incompatible tape drives. In the aftermath, a consortium came up with an open tape standard. The current generation of tape drives are called Linear Tape-Open (LTO) and have been around for 2 decades. With LTO, one can be reassured that supply chain disruption will be minimized in the case of a single company going out of business, as many of those previous tape drive and media companies have either gone out of business or gotten out of the tape business. New generations of LTOs keep coming out which are better but also incompatible with older generations (there are rules around how compatible a drive and tape will be with the next and previous generation but not beyond). We're in the 8th gen now with the 9th gen coming out soon, or by the time you read this already. There's real risk of not being able to read your tapes in a few years, using hardware several generations ahead. Unlike a hard drive where you just need to stick it in any SATA slot, a tape needs a compatible drive. The same consideration goes for optical media although optical hardware can usually read many older generations of media.

Eight generation LTO tapes can hold 12 TB of data uncompressed, double the previous generation's, but they have built in compression which could more than double the capacity. But you can count on at least 12 TB. The next generation is supposed to double uncompressed capacity again to 24 TB. There's a Moore's Law effect going on here.

LTO tapes are designed to last 15 to 30 years. Most optical discs (CDRs, etc.) from 15+ years ago are unreadable by now.

An LTO-8 drive costs thousands of dollars. Much more than a M-DISC-capable BD-R writer. But a single LTO-8 (12 TB) tape costs "only" about $100, whereas $100 worth of blank BD-Rs holds a fraction of the data. Still, they are cheaper than equivalent hard drives.

But the tape drive itself is rather expensive for normal consumers compared to the other options so far. From the perspective of an organization looking to store dozens of terabytes or more then this is a good if not the only option for cost as well as logistic reasons (the tape drives are made to handle shuffling around lots of tapes, whereas you'd need 100 times as many M-DISCs manually loaded for the same capacity). So it depends on how much data you plan to archive.

If an LTO drive was made communally available then it also becomes cost effective for more individual use cases. Most people would fit their lives into a single 12 TB tape. Imagine if there were shops, like Internet cafes of old, where you could buy a tape and write 12 TB of data to it, and come back later to read the tape when needed.

For most people, I think it makes more sense to save your life's data on M-DISCs or hard drives.