How to Avoid the Shortcomings of Virtual Tape Libraries

VTLs can sometimes make life easier for the enterprise user-but not always. As Knowledge Center contributor George Crump points out, it's not nearly as simple as it seems to make these devices work well. And, if not done right, it can be worse than not having them at all.


It started innocently enough. Users were struggling with backing up to tape. Disk prices, especially with SATA (Serial ATA) technology, were going down while capacities were going up. Users started using SATA technology as a fast cache to tape to help improve backup speeds. Also, if they had to recover from the disk, it was faster and easier than tape. Disk became attractive for recovery. The problem that most users ran into was, they could not afford to buy enough disks to handle all of their disk backups (which would have eliminated the need for tape altogether).

A manual transfer of the data from the disk array, through the backup server, to a tape library became necessary. Additionally, moving that backup data electronically across the network to another disk array on a remote site, became necessary if tape was to be truly eliminated. The problem with a basic disk accomplishing what was required was, most WAN segments were too small (and still are) to handle the size of data that a traditional backup application can produce in a backup window.

Enter VTLs. These libraries are disk arrays that are optimized to look like tape libraries to the backup application. Its mission is to solve the disk-to-tape integration and make disk the ideal cache for tape operations. The data transfer is still, much like basic backup to disk, a manual transfer through the backup application and onto the tape device. VTLs are arrays optimized for the task of backup. They are designed to handle the increased throughput that the backup application delivered. In addition, some VTLs improve the file system's ability to handle larger-than-normal file system sizes, and to deal with issues like fragmentation. However, VTL adoption has been, and continues to be, extremely slow. Why?

VTLs are complex

First, VTLs continue to be very complex to implement into any environment. Most are SAN (storage area network)-based and, as a result, bring all of the complexities of a Fibre Channel SAN into the equation. A great many customers, to this day, have a very limited number of servers attached to a SAN-let alone backed up via a SAN. It is too complex to be cost-effective, especially in large shops where more FC is found. VTLs made matters worse by adding the complexity of integrating an often foreign device into the SAN. This addition creates challenges with zoning and partitioning the SAN so that the backup process and production storage can peacefully coexist.

Even if you purchase your VTL solution from your SAN supplier, most of the larger primary storage manufacturers have either acquired or OEM'd that technology-and the integration has not been perfected yet. As a result, even if the logo on your VTL solution matches the logo on your SAN array, it is still very complex to implement and maintain.

VTLs increase total backup completion times

Many data centers do not consider data to be protected until a second copy of the backup is made for DR (disaster recovery) purposes. In the case of VTLs, that means that backup data has to be on a piece of tape media, as well as on disk. Since most VTL solutions are not supplied with capacity optimized (data deduplication or at a minimum compression), the move from disk storage to tape has to happen quite frequently-most commonly every night.

Even those VTL solutions that have added data deduplication to their systems are struggling. There is typically no back-end integration to the tape device. The data under the control of the backup application needs to pull this data from the VTL back through the backup server, and then out to the tape library. Essentially, to get data to tape now requires three transfers instead of one. Initially, it goes from the backup server to the VTL, then from the VTL back to the backup server, and then it goes from the backup server to the tape library. This results in three times the opportunity for transfer failure. This process in the VTL world happens on almost EVERY backup.

VTLs extend time to DR

Also with VTLs, there is limited ability to create an electronic DR copy. The stored backup set on disk was quite large, and many VTL solutions have some capability to replicate data to another unit. The size of the backup set made it prohibitive to do so, except across the shortest links. In many cases, this DR copy was simply made by directing the backup application to make a copy from one VTL to another VTL, at the end of the WAN link. Some VTLs did have the ability to communicate directly with each other, but then the backup application had no awareness of the second copy of data, and the size of the data set was too large. The vaulting option, most likely to be chosen, remained to copy data to another set of tapes (that is a fourth time data has to move). Finally, put the tape on a truck, and send the truck to the vault.

Most VTL restores are not from disk

In the VTL world, most moves to the vault were via a tape on a truck, and that tape had to be created soon after the backup to adhere to a DR policy. Because of this, it meant that another big driver for disk-based backups, recovery from disk, was eliminated. Most VTLs create virtual pieces of media that have bar codes, which correspond to the real media and bar codes in the library. Most backup applications can handle only one occurrence of a backup set and one bar- code instance. As a result, when the copy to tape was made, the backup set that was on the disk was eliminated and was no longer available for recoveries. This meant, even if you could afford a large disk cache, you often could not use it for recoveries.

VTLs do not reduce tape media expenditures

Since the move to tape has to happen almost the moment the backup job is complete, and then a second set of tapes is created for DR off-site, the amount of media used is not reduced. In fact, some VTLs that move data directly to tape as a background process cannot properly calculate the capacity differences between storing the backup set on a non-compressed disk section of the VTL, and then moving it to the compressed tape side of the VTL. To compensate, they will recommend turning off tape drive compression, effectively doubling the tape media requirement. Or they recommend not using the background transfer to tape and letting the application manage it.

VTLs offer inefficient deduplication

To compensate for their lack of value, VTLs have attempted to add data deduplication as a product feature. The challenge is, because most of these systems have deduplication as a post-process, they again further complicate the process by creating separate storage areas to resource and manage (de-duped and non-de-duped). They also, by definition of post-process, delay replication time, thus impacting the security of an in-place DR copy until the post-process deduplication can complete.

VTLs are complex to install, and they do not address the key requirements of their purchasers: faster backups, electronic vaulting, and recoveries from disk and media cost reduction.

So what are some solutions?

The first and simplest solution is to try to eliminate tape altogether or at least lessen the number of times it is needed in the environment. This is achievable today by using a capacity-optimized disk backup target that leverages a technology like data deduplication. Data deduplication identifies redundant data segments before they can be written to disk. Instead of writing those redundant segments, it makes a pointer to the original segment. Since the data in this week's full backup is likely to be very similar to the data in last week's full backup, storage efficiencies of 20-times are not uncommon, meaning that 200TB's of backup data can be stored in about 10TB's worth.

Similar to VTLs, the more sophisticated data deduplication devices can replicate between one another. Unlike VTLs, only the unique segments are stored on the data deduplication device. Plus, it replicates only those unique segments making electronic vaulting over very modest WAN links very possible (and now commonplace in the segment). As with VTLs, the backup process is not complete until a DR copy of the backup is made. With a deduplication system that leverages this form of electronic vaulting, especially one that does in-line data deduplication, this happens very quickly.

By being able to store data more efficiently on disk, the move to tape in some data centers may be eliminated entirely. Most data centers will still need to move data to tape, so the value with these capacity-optimized devices is that this move can be far less frequent. There is also less risk for data loss because each backup job is replicated to the remote data deduplication system at the vault. The tape then is used for long-term retention. Fewer media is used because data is sent to tape less often. The data is electronically vaulted to another data deduplication system and the tape created locally, for long-term storage, can become the final vault copy. A reduction of media expenditures by two-thirds is not uncommon with data deduplication systems.

Lastly, some data deduplication systems are IP-based. Integration into the existing environment is easy; users are not forced into a tape protocol (FC). Most IT staffs have a much deeper knowledge base of IP than FC, and the configuration of the environment is simpler and far less intrusive. Implementation time is measured in hours as opposed to days.

In-line data deduplication

In-line data deduplication, (data that is deduplicated as it is processed before it lands on disk), keeps the process simple by not having to require separate storage areas. With most systems, replication to DR can happen as data is being written to the deduplication system in the primary location. The net result is that data deduplication systems continue to address the immediate pain that IT professionals are facing in the backup process. They are improving reliability and simplifying a very complex process.

VTLs are a tape-augmentation solution. Big shops can and will afford it, for now. A VTL can act as a fast-cache-to-tape in a large consolidated data center. Here, backup virtualization is a better strategy to look at, which would include virtualizing data deduplication systems.

/images/stories/heads/crump_george70x70.jpg George Crump is the founder of Storage Switzerland, an analyst company focused on the virtualization and storage marketplaces. An industry veteran for over 25 years, he has held engineering and sales positions at various IT industry manufacturers and integrators. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, Crump was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest integrators. He can be reached at