Why I'm looking at tape again for storage

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Why I'm looking at tape again for storage

Jon Honeyball discovers that tape is still the medium of choice for mass storage needs.

I decided that we needed a tape backup. This was no small step, since I’d managed to convince myself for a decade that digital tape was the root of all evil. Ten years ago, I had an HP DAT drive, and the kindest thing I could say about it was that DAT stood for “dies after two years”, which it did. Then, its replacement had huge problems reading the tapes I’d so carefully created. This wasn’t an issue only with HP’s drives – DAT itself was at fault – and I know that I wasn’t merely unlucky, since a number of my clients had similar problems. So the whole affair left a sour taste in the mouth.
Since then, I’ve been relying on multiple hard disk backups for my important data. This can be messy, since there’s always a temptation to create \wednesdaybackup\
mystuff and then next week create \tuesday, which contains \wednesdaybackup\mystuff. Eventually, you feel like Alice peering down the rabbit hole as you acquire endless copies of copies of data splattered across disks in various subdirectories. Sorting this out can take days. 
It’s worse still when you decide to replace an old PC and take a copy of all its drives, “in case there’s something important”. This means you end up with \oldmacbookprobackup, which also contains its own mess of \tuesdaybackups and so forth, except that now you’ve copied the mess onto your shiny new computer (or stuffed it onto a RAID array connected to a server). The only saving grace of such a huge data mess is that drive indexing now enables you to find things quickly, but this isn’t really a good enough solution. Sure, it will list all 37 copies of \thatmissingfile.doc, but are they all good?
Today, the amount of data on my network is rather large. One of my main data stores is almost 10TB in size, and there’s a 10TB Time Machine archive of it as well. Then there are various other images created using SuperDuper, which is an excellent tool for finely controlling backups. Adding a further 24TB to the network, in the shape of an Asustor AS-608T NAS, was a good way to relieve some bottlenecks, but it left me with a dilemma: should I purchase another to run a backup of the first? And, if I do, how do I locate it off-site in case of fire? 
Well, cloud-based storage is a big help here. I have a 1TB Dropbox account, through which the most important items can be synced to a computer in my house, ten miles away from the office. But things become murky when you add in the legal issue of being able to prove the state of a particular file on a specified date. I could use Dropbox’s infinite undelete facility to roll back the file to a certain date, but would this satisfy a judge? I’m not 
totally convinced.
Hence my decision to look again at tape. In the world of tape drives, there’s now one Big Daddy: the LTO-6 format. This offers 2.5TB of storage natively and up to 6TB compressed, depending on your files. Now, 2.5TB is certainly a start, but arguably it isn’t enough. You may remember I tried out a Tandberg LTO-5 drive last year, connected to my desktop Mac via a fibre-channel-to-Thunderbolt interface box. 
This worked reasonably well, but clearly I needed more storage space. LTO-6 was a start, but a box that can handle eight LTO-6 tapes in an autochanger is a better size. This ultimately led me back to HP and its 1/8 G2 LTO-6 autochanger. 
This dinky thing is only 1U high, but it’s deep, which is necessary to accommodate the eight tapes, the autochange mechanism and the tape drive itself. Connection to the outside world is via SAS, so I needed an SAS-to-Thunderbolt interface. I went for the ATTO ThunderLink SH 1068 box, which offers two SAS ports, thus allowing for SAS expansion. 
For software, I reverted to Tolis BRU PE, updated to the latest version. This is handy, since it understands Final Cut Pro X installations and can grab all the files for your video-editing projects in one go in a hands-off operation. Getting this rig up and running was almost painless – right up to the point where it didn’t work.
Well, it worked some of the time, except for when it hung, or when the software couldn’t find the drive, or when Martians invaded and covered everything with custard. Suddenly, I found myself crawling across a hellish landscape of firmware updates and patches. 
The ATTO had a firmware patch, but I needed to install Java to get it working. The HP drive? Well, there I ran into a real problem. You see, I typed the serial number of my device into HP’s website and discovered that, instead of the 12-month support warranty I’d expected, I had approximately nine months left – and this for a device that had been purchased from a main HP reseller only days beforehand. I know it was a main HP reseller because HP ran a significant cashback offer on these drives in June, and I was given $3,000 off the purchase price.  
You can imagine how amused I was to discover this reduced warranty. So amused, in fact, that I engaged the help of the PC & Tech Authority team to find someone at HP to whom I could express my amusement. A week – and many apologetic emails – later, HP still can’t explain what’s happened or why my warranty has been foreshortened. I’ll get to the bottom of this, hopefully before I, or the drive, explode. You may recall all that nonsense a few months ago about HP not offering firmware support if your device was out of warranty. Well, I’ve got my eye on you, HP; our relationship started off rather badly this time around.
Indeed, the relationship has worsened already. I tried to discover whether I had the correct firmware for the drive and autoloader, which you’d think would be easy: download a pair of firmware files; go to the web-based interface on the device; load the firmware files; and let it update itself. But that would be far too simple. 
You see, on HP’s website, you have to select the OS you’re running, at which point it tells you what’s available to you. If you’re on OS X, you don’t receive any firmware options. Windows 8? Sorry, you’re out of luck too. However, choose Windows Server 2008 R2 and you’ll get a whole variety of things, including “HP Library and Tape Tools Firmware Bundle (American, International)”. Why the distinction between 8.1 and Server 2008? Who really knows... 
So, I have a dilemma. I could update the drive and autoloader using the Windows-based firmware updater running in a VMware Fusion VM session; however, I have no desire for any more grey hairs. I delight in using Fusion on an almost daily basis to run various versions of Windows, but to update the firmware in a multithousand-pound tape library? All right, I could connect the library to another machine, but I don’t have one with SAS, nor do I have a Windows computer with a Thunderbolt port (not many do), so I’m left with the same dilemma. 
Of course, it isn’t really clear what version of the firmware is actually in the bundle itself: it’s simply dated 4 April 2014. The web interface on the device lists a pair of version numbers, but with no dates. You’d think that someone at HP could have joined up this information, but evidently not.
Finding out what was going wrong with the backups brought flashbacks of a nightmare, too. BRU PE is powerful, established and well regarded, but I wish someone would show it some 21st-century user-interface design love: it looks like a dog-eared piece of code written in the 1990s in Visual Basic 3. It makes me sad to say this, since it performs an important role, and I’m far from convinced that my problems had anything to do with the software. I started out by using the Thunderbolt ports on the new Mac Pro, and I think I’d point the finger there first.
Having changed computers, changed the firmware in the ATTO box, changed Thunderbolt cables, reconfigured the Thunderbolt buses, spat rum and waved a dead chicken over the HP drive, I now have a solution that seems rock-solid. Was it worth the grief? Yes. Being able to set up a number of tapes as a single archive volume is great: throw large amounts of data into the archive and let it sort it out; do a full backup then incrementals; then pull the tapes out and load new ones. As for the legal archiving requirement, I can use WORM (write once, read many times) tapes. In this new arrangement, a set of WORM tapes is taken at the beginning of every month, then taken off-site to be stored in a proper archive.
All of this has given me the kick up the backside necessary to start untangling the pile of spaghetti that is my networked disk-based storage. Getting rid of old duplicates that are no longer needed is certainly therapeutic, and a glance at the price of LTO-6 tape cartridges provides me with a serious incentive to simplify and dedupe.
Copyright © PC Pro, Dennis Publishing
Copyright © PC Authority, nextmedia

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