The Tales That Tape Can Tell

Magnetic tape and I go back a long way. Thirty years ago, I was mispronouncing "hysteresis" (the magnetically sticky behavior that makes it possible for tape to record stuff) while tuning my open-reel stereo deck to minimize analog hiss. Dolby

Magnetic tape and I go back a long way. Thirty years ago, I was mispronouncing "hysteresis" (the magnetically sticky behavior that makes it possible for tape to record stuff) while tuning my open-reel stereo deck to minimize analog hiss. Dolby hardware was beyond my means.

I still have most of the tapes that I made back then, and—more to the point—I still have the same tape deck. Which means that I can play back the tapes, noisy or not. Bob Terdeman, chief data warehousing architect at EMC, wonders how many enterprise IT leaders can say the same about their own magnetic tape records.

Describing his tour of a claustrophobically rugged data vault, Terdeman observed that many of the reels that he saw there were in seven-track format. "How many of you still have a seven-track drive?" he asked my fellow attendees at the annual Best Practice Awards meeting of New Yorks Technology Managers Forum.

If old-format drives have actually been kept on hand or files migrated from old media types to new, what about file formats? What word processor were you using seven years ago, what custom applications with their unique file types? Could you use those files today, assuming theyre intact and supported by hardware? Could you produce that data on demand or for purposes of business continuity if your mainline storage systems were destroyed?

At the same meeting in New York, I spoke with engineers from ADI Corp. (more commonly known as ADIC). That companys stock in trade is a broad line of tape devices handling DLT, LTO—even VHS videocassettes. Apart from the mechanical challenge of robotic handling for all those media, they told me that software partnerships are critical to a successful installation: If backup, archival and retrieval arent convenient operations that are well integrated with specific IT missions, the associated systems wont be regularly exercised.

The first time that those systems are really needed is a terrible time to conduct their first true test.