Magnetic Tape Storage: Advantages and Disadvantages

Gone are the days of floppy disks and VHS. But while disk, optical, and cloud technologies are the leading storage mediums today, magnetic tape is not obsolete. In fact, IBM and Sony released a new magnetic tape storage device as recently as 2017.

What are the magnetic tape storage advantages that have kept its use alive since the 1950s? And what are its drawbacks that allowed other technologies to surge forward?

Magnetic tape storage advantages and disadvantages on aspects of cost, speed, integrity, capacity, and other factors are discussed in this article.

Magnetic Tape Storage: Advantages

Cost Effective – Low Overall Costs

Coupled with its large capacity, magnetic tape storage is also cost-effective. It stems from magnetic tape being just that – a reel of thin plastic tape coated with magnetised material.

Rob Sloan, cybersecurity research director at the Wall Street Journal, explains: “The total cost of ownership [of magnetic tape storage] per terabyte is also the lowest of any storage medium. Top-of-the-line tapes can hold up to 15 terabytes and can be archived in third-party locations at a fraction of the cost of cheapest cloud storage.”

Research shows that magnetic tape uses less electricity than disk storage. While there is a lower cost for electricity, some experts do consider it as negligible.

Magnetic Tape Portability

One magnetic tape storage advantage is its physical lightweight and easy portability. Magnetic tapes can be easily transported to a secure, off-site location. A data vault, for example. This affords better protection and security. Off-site magnetic tapes are protected from disasters (fire, flood, theft, etc.) the main site may experience.

(One drawback of this advantage is the delay in retrieving magnetic tapes from the off-site location. Any physical tapes needed for a (possibly emergency) back-up need to physically found and then transported back to the main site. Compare this to cloud storage where it is possible to find and and access backups within minutes.)

Less Susceptible to Online Threats

In general, magnetic tape systems live largely isolated from the internet. This helps in their protection from cyber-security threats. Recent hacks and ransomware attacks on high-profile targets illustrate an ever-present attack point faced by internet-connected and online storage mediums.

IronMountain explains:

[R]ecent hacks expose the need for large enterprises to have a backup of their data on physical tapes which cannot be hacked or destroyed when “offline.” These tapes, when situated in a secured, physical vault… cannot be accessed by hackers. Disk-to-disk or cloud solutions, while great solutions, still have the ability to leave data vulnerable have proven they can’t be trusted with 100 percent of a company’s information because they offer storage that’s located online, and therefore, accessible to hackers.

In the case of a recent breach surrounding a large media company, hackers released software that attempted to destroy company data on purpose and to gain possession of every copy of this data for the purposes of ransom. If this enterprise knew it had an offline and offsite backup solution, it would be in a much better position to make sure that last copy was virtually unobtainable.

Generally Longer Lifespan than Other Mediums

Magnetic tape boasts a lifespan of around 30 years. This exceeds many other mediums, but is dependent on how well the magnetic tapes are protected from harmful factors (which are discussed below).

Compare the magnetic tape lifespan to these other mediums:

  • Hard Disk – 3 to 5 years
  • Flash Storage – 5 to 10 years
  • DVDs and CDs – 2 to 10 years (dependent on recording status)
Cassette tapes (formally: Compact Audio Cassette) are one example of magnetic tape storage devices; They were once popular for audio files. Optical media, such as CDs and DVDs, have practically replaced cassette tapes for portable audio storage. These magnetic tape storage advantages and disadvantages show some reasons why.
The magnetic tape is removed from this cassette and is clearly visible.

Magnetic Tape Storage: Disadvantages

High Initial Investment – Costly Equipment Required

A magnetic tape storage system generally requires purchasing costly, special equipment. An upfront, heavy investment is required when setting up a new system.

Slow to Find Data

When examining magnetic tape storage advantages and disadvantages, it is important to remember that magnetic tape is a sequential access device. It has no addressing mechanism. Data access is far slower than random access devices, such as hard disks. To find a specific block of data in magnetic tape, all data blocks before it need to be accessed first.

Consider listening to audio files from a cassette tape. (A cassette uses magnetic tape.) After listening to the 15th audio file, it is not possible to select and play, for instance, the third file. The tape has to manually rewind from the end of the 15th audio file, through the 14th, 13th,12th… until it reaches the start of the third file.

Furthermore, the loading of a magnetic tape cassette and the positioning of the tape head takes longer than corresponding processes in hard disk technology,

Susceptible to Physical and Environmental Damage

Another disadvantage of magnetic tape as a storage medium is its susceptibility to physical and environmental damage. This may lead to data loss, data alteration, and/or permanent tape damage. In some cases, the entire tape role becomes useless after damage to some area/s of the tape.

Possible damaging factors include:

  • High temperature
  • High humidity
  • Proximity to strong magnetic fields
  • Mechanical shock and improper handling
  • Dust

Evidently, these factors can be minimized with proper processes and control.

Difficult to Recover Specific/Individual Files

As explained, magnetic tape storage is a sequential access device. It is difficult to find and/or recover a specific or individual file in a backup. Magnetic tape must be searched from one end to find the specified file for recovery.

Partial data restoration is difficult with this storage medium. Restoring a backup of the whole system is ideal with magnetic tape storage. Disk and cloud storage does not face this disadvantage.

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