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What Cloud? U.K. University Tries Tape For Backup

Anyone who says tape is 'dead' should talk with the University of Bristol IT team backing up 125 TB of data per week.

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Harvey Ditchfield and his boss, Graeme Cappi, spent years hemming and hawing about whether they should buy an archive for all that data growing bigger and bigger in the corner.

Finally, they gave in -- and say it was one of the best decisions they've ever made.

"We always suspected a lot of that data we were backing up constantly was no longer active," Ditchfield, a senior systems operator, told Information Week.

"But when we finally got round to archiving it, even I was surprised at how old some of this was and how long it had been since anyone had touched it. There's a real hidden data mountain here; I think having this archived is going to make a big difference for our backup capacity."

Ditchfield and Cappi, who is a senior systems administrator, both work in systems and operations, the central IT function of the U.K.'s University of Bristol, a major higher education institution which has more than 5,300 employees and around 20,000 students. All of whom generate a lot of data; Ditchfield estimates the team backs up around 125 TB a week from 450 to 500 servers. "The ability to move infrequently accessed data off primary storage and into an archive is an essential part of our future strategy," he stressed.

[ It may be time to say goodbye to some of that data you're sitting on. Are You A Data Hoarder? ]

Ditchfield said the team spent about a decade working up to the decision to get help on managing all this mountain of information. Last March that finally changed, when it tested technology from backup and archive specialist Spectra Logic, a trial so successful it's led to Bristol now going into production with a new tape-based platform, the T680.

While we all talk about cloud, said Ditchfield, tape still has a very large part to play. "We like the idea of having the data still easily at hand; we feel tape gives us that bit more control, too," he said.

In practical terms, the T680 is a 2-petabyte box where Cappi and Ditchfield can offload less-frequently accessed data from their primary disk storage to an active tape archive. StorHouse software from supplier FileTek is starting to be used to move the data from primary disk storage to the active tape archive, he added. That is expected to save some money, but the focus is less on immediate cash savings, said Ditchfield, than boosting overall storage and backup capacity across the university.

Ditchfield looked at other archive offerings, but says he really likes working with Spectra Logic, which he describes as a real "engineer's company." He also lauds its quality approach, citing how impressed he was by the fact that all physical media get swept by a special carbide cleaner before shipping to maximize its cleanliness, or how each tape is linked to a radio ID tag so managers always know each step of its journey through a system. The system's BlueScale encryption provides 256-bit AES security for stored data, and the built-in management system records more than 40 data points every time a tape is loaded.

"I also like the fact that this company wants to break into new markets like ours, so I feel it's 'hungry' and really wants to support us and do a good job," he added.

The next step will be to look at archiving not just the university's day-to-day data, but the swelling store of research the institution's academics and postgrads build up. To do so, he said, there is serious talk of buying a second library -- which sounds like pretty rapid progress for Bristol's data managers after so much initial hemming and hawing.

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Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
3/20/2013 | 11:53:37 PM
re: What Cloud? U.K. University Tries Tape For Backup
For an archive, tape is a good idea, even if it does sound hopelessly antiquated in these days of cloud storage and SSDs. As Howard Marks noted in a blog post on Network Computing, "Tape users can probably go 10 years between data migrations. Tape vendors say data on tape is stable for 20 years, so tape should be readable after just 10."

Drew Conry-Murray
Editor, Network Computing
Dakota Backup&Recovery
Dakota Backup&Recovery,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/21/2013 | 10:59:51 PM
re: What Cloud? U.K. University Tries Tape For Backup
At Dakota Backup & Recovery, we agree that keeping tape backup of data files on-site is a good ideaG«™of course, itG«÷s only a good idea if it is implemented as a supplement in data backup and recovery.

Tape-based data storage is excellent for maintaining control and keeping files G«ˇeasily at hand.G«÷ However, what would happen if the University of BristolG«÷s data archives were subjected to disaster or human error, or were in some other way compromised? In addition, it seems like a costly solution to have to keep adding data archives as university data continues to growG«™

Remote offsite backup with cloud-managed software accomplishes the same goals as tape-based backup, but it also accounts for disaster recovery, autonomic healing, restore validation, and data security encryption.With cloud-based solutions, simple file restores are done in seconds - with traditional tape backup, restores can take minutes, or even hours. We go into more detail on the subject here:
Storage Monkey
Storage Monkey,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/26/2013 | 2:03:20 PM
re: What Cloud? U.K. University Tries Tape For Backup
You are a smidgen off of the mark. (For clarity, the preceding was written with a thick smog of sarcasm enveloping it)

The storage platform at Bristol University protects data against both disasters and/or human error, with the solution designed to incorporate infrastructure across two sites and multiple hardware components.

Quite simply - this system is far, far more than just backup. It serves a backup function as any data ingested into StorHouse can be removed from a backup regime, but the main function is the provision of a mechanism for storing vast amounts of (ever increasing) data very easily. Whether local or external storage is used, the University will always need to spend money on storage as data volumes increase - they won't be given it for free.

What we're talking about here is a peta-scale nearline storage platform that means data can be securely stored, maintained (without even a hint of silent corruption or bit rot occurring) and always kept online. How do you propose that any cloud storage vendor provides online and high-speed read & write access to multi-petabyte volumes of data?

Your comment regarding file restores is irrelevant.

And, for reference, disk is a much more suitable platform for "keeping files 'easily at hand'" than tape given accessibility characteristics.
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