Managing tape is no longer an oxymoron

By David Hill

Managing the software and hardware components of an IT infrastructure has become an increasingly complex and difficult challenge. Yet meeting service levels and cost requirements revolves around the ability to manage efficiently (do things right) and effectively (do the right things).

Almost all vendors tout how well their software tools can help ease the burden of management. While that is desirable, simplified management is not the only answer to the complexity challenge. A more important question to consider is whether administrators have the necessary information and analytical capabilities to manage effectively — if at all. For example, IBM acquired Exeros to enable it to help customers automate and accelerate understanding of data and data relationships. The rationale that IBM expressed for the deal is, "You can't manage what you can't understand." That builds upon the age-old adage: "You can't manage what you can't measure."

Vendors are trying to fill in as many data center management gaps as possible, especially in an increasingly virtualized world where the focus is on creating a new generation of IT infrastructures. Storage vendors recognize this. For example, NetApp bought Onaro to acquire SANscreen, an approach to extending data center automation to storage. EMC acquired WysDM for data-protection management capabilities that provide past, present and future insights into existing backup environments.

But what happens when the information that you need to manage is not available? For example, all the information that is needed to manage a SAN is not natively available. HBAs, switches and disks are all involved in SAN I/O, but it is not their job to collect management information. Adding in specific hardware devices to be able to collect SAN traffic data enables the ability to audit and report on data traffic and trends. Vendors such as Virtual Instruments provide that capability, which can lead to quickly identifying performance problems and behavior anomalies, as well as being able to point out potential issues that are on the verge of exceeding "best practices" thresholds and moreover, identify potential cost savings.

Management requirements for tape

But what about the tape automation environment? Tape automation is not the most glamorous part of a data center, but it is a major part of most data centers.

A tape automation environment has three basic elements: libraries (automation), drives, and cartridges (media).

However, natively these elements do not capture much information that can be used in their management. In fact, management of a tape environment is likely to be reactive instead of proactive, such as repairing a tape drive that refuses to ingest or eject a tape or replacing a tape cartridge that cannot be read (bad news if it is part of a major recovery process).

Tape environment management should be much more than reactive failure analysis. Proactive management can be constructed around answering a number of critical questions:

  • Can alerts that are the results of degraded performance or serious error conditions be reviewed properly so that corrective action can be taken? If not, backups may not complete correctly and critical restores could fail.
  • Can the interaction between a tape drive and tape cartridges be examined to determine the root cause of a problem? If so, this can resolve a major source of administrative headaches.
  • Are tape drives performing efficiently? A simple question whose answer is critical, since inefficient performance could lead to unnecessarily high failure rates.
  • Are tape drives being utilized effectively? Overused tape drives can have high failure rates, while underused drives result in a waste of scarce IT budget dollars.
  • Can an already written tape be read correctly? Another simple question whose answer is crucial for ensuring recovery processes.

Media manufacturers and third parties have a variety of tools to help you monitor, track and manage tapes (see sidebar, "Keeping track of tapes"), as do tape library vendors, but let's focus on one example.

Crossroads Systems has solved the management problem for tape automation environments with its ReadVerify Appliance (RVA) and supporting services. While Quantum, for example, has some very capable features for tape environment management via its Vision management software, the company focuses on its own (homogenous) tape environments. In contrast, Crossroads can support any Fibre Channel-based tape environment (which includes open systems, as well as mainframe-based tape environments). Note also that Crossroads' approach focuses on the management of the tape storage devices themselves, rather than data management or information management.

The Crossroads approach is based on three general principles:

  1. An RVA is installed in the tape environment outside of the data path, collecting data that otherwise would not be available for analysis.
  2. Crossroads' monitoring and reporting solutions not only have the necessary analytical and visual presentation capabilities, but can draw upon one or more of the following sources of information — a historical (i.e., longitudinal) database of the customer's own information, a database of vendor recommendations (such as what should be the appropriate duty cycle for a tape drive), and an anonymous database of what other customers have experienced that can be used for benchmarking.
  3. Giving the customer an option of getting information through one or more services, which frees them up for the actual decision-making and action-taking rather than having to worry about the process of monitoring and reporting the information.

The RVA is a 1U rack-mountable appliance that sits in the tape environment data path. The RVA ties into the LAN environment so it can be managed and transmit its findings, such as e-mail alerts.

A customer can choose to work with a Crossroads partner to use one or more of the following tape environment services:

  • Library Monitoring and Alerts — This service provides daily reports on all triggered events, such as lost device communications or serious error conditions. However, the service can also report on less critical, but still important, alerts that describe poor drive efficiency or high device load counts, which may have a long-term impact on systems' costs, capital expenditures or successful data recovery.
  • Tape Environment Site Analysis — With this service, a survey report is generated after, say, a 90-day analysis of a site's tape environment, offering a comprehensive analysis of its condition. This includes drive-tape cartridge error analysis of the interaction between drives and tape media, overall tape performance over the analysis period, and whether or not the utilization of the tape drives is reasonable or not.
  • Tape Verification — Using an otherwise empty tape drive, the RVA appliance can verify that the information written on tapes is still correct. The resulting reports show metrics of all tapes verified, which is useful for providing clearly documented records for regulatory compliance.

See the sidebar, "Keeping track of tapes," for information on other tools and services that can help you monitor and manage tape environments. 

David Hill is the founder of the Mesabi Group consulting firm, www.mesabigroup.com.

Keeping track of tapes 

There are a number of tools that can help users manage, monitor and track tape resources.

By Dave Simpson

Today, users are focused on increasing the reliability and efficiency of their tape environments. If you have tape libraries, you're no doubt familiar with the management and monitoring tools available from library manufacturers. But there are a variety of tools from media manufacturers – such as Fujifilm, Imation and Maxell -- and third-party vendors that you might not be familiar with.

Most media manufacturers have tools that use the Cartridge Memory (CM) chip in LTO cartridges to glean information about tapes and tape drive usage and reliability. For example, users can insert LTO cartridges into Fujifilm's Data Cartridge (DC) Analyser to assess the condition of tapes in order to increase reliability and avoid backup/recovery problems. The DC Analyser reads information from the LTO CM chip, including error codes, remaining capacity, total number of cartridge writes, reads, loads and age. Users can create custom policies to "grade" the condition of tapes.

The DC Analyser also provides information on what drives the cartridges have been used in, which can help identify drive-related problems. DC Analyser software produces reports with historical trend analysis.

Similarly, Imation's SecureScan uses the CM chips in LTO cartridges to get information on the health of tape cartridges, drives and libraries. SecureScan was introduced earlier this year, and includes a data security feature that locks a cartridge so that LTO drives can not write to or read from the cartridge.

Maxell's entry in this space is the CM Analyzer, which was introduced last December. "The goal is to isolate problems with tape cartridges and drives before they occur," says Rich D'Ambrise, Maxell's director of technology. The CM Analyzer software produces Tape Evaluation Scores, ranging from 0 to 100, to rate the reliability of cartridges. The original CM Analyzer was only for LTO cartridges, but Maxell introduced a version for 3590 tape drives/cartridges in April. Both versions have built-in barcode readers.

Another player in this space is MPTapes with its VeriTape LTO cartridge quality analyzer, which also pulls tape usage information from the LTO CM chip. In addition to LTO cartridges, MPTapes sells versions of VeriTape for 3592 tape cartridges.

Tracking tapes in transit

Some vendors also have tools for tracking tapes in data centers, in transit from data centers to remote locations, and/or at remote locations.

For example, Fujifilm's Tape Tracker is based on GPS technology (and is supported by LoJack software via Fujifilm's Fujifind application) and allows users to track tapes when they are in transit between a data center and offsite locations. Introduced in April, Tape Tracker reports the location of tapes over a cellular network.

Imation's DataGuard rf Tape Tracking System uses RFID technology and Imation's Volume and Serial (Vol-Ser) Number Labels, which work with Motorola 9090G handheld readers, to track tapes. DataGuard rf can be integrated with existing tape management systems, and helps reduce the risk of lost or misfiled tapes via automatic notifications. DataGuard rf is used primarily within data centers.

DataGuard rf can also integrate with B&L Associates' Vertices and/or VaultLedger tape management/tracking/monitoring/auditing tools, both of which enable administrators to track offline tapes. The major drivers behind adoption of tools such as Vertices and VaultLedger, according to B&L's vice president of sales and marketing, Michael Kramer, are compliance and eDiscovery, as well as business continuity.

VaultLedger and Vertices interface with most major backup applications, trap tape information (e.g., tape number, backup job name/date, expiration date, backup clients, etc.), and enable tracking of the tapes via RFID tags and/or bar codes. The applications also provide audit trails of the tapes for compliance and eDiscovery purposes. In addition, the applications make recommendations on where tapes should be sent based on backup policies. In addition to Imation, B&L Associates partners with vendors such as Iron Mountain, Crossroads and BakBone Software. Iron Mountain's customers, for example, benefit from the partnership from both a security and compliance standpoint because they can see what information is being stored with Iron Mountain.

A number of vendors offer services to help administrators monitor and analyze tape environments. For example, Fujifilm's Tape Environment Analysis service is a 7x24 online service that provides analysis of, and reports on, tape media/drive/library and backup software environments. The reports provide recommendations on how users can optimize their existing tape resources and avoid additional expenditures. The service also provides advice on areas such as potential cost reductions, drive repair, media removal, library service, backup application configuration, storage network configuration, and performance recommendations. Fujifilm partnered with Crossroads on the Tape Environment Analysis services, which also include Archive Verification Services and Tape Verification Service and Analysis programs.

Third-party tools

Curtis Breville, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) research and consulting firm, recommends the following third-party tools for managing, monitoring and measuring tape environments: Crossroads' ReadVerify Appliance (RVA) and Hi-Stor Technologies' StorSentry (which is resold by Sun and also integrates with EMC's Backup Advisor), both of which provide proactive analysis of tape resources.

According to Crossroads president and CEO, Rob Sims, RVA differs from the monitoring tools offered by media manufacturers in that RVA provides proactive, real-time monitoring of tape libraries/drives/media from a SAN-based appliance.

Sims notes that in the past tape media was typically blamed for backup/recovery-related failures, but that today failures are more often due to drive-related issues. "The reliability of tape drives varies widely," says Sims, "even within the same drive manufacturer's product line."

Hi-Stor's StorSentry also provides monitoring and management of tape media, drives, libraries and software, and Hi-Stor also provides a variety of tape management services. StorSentry is an in-band monitoring solution that runs on a dedicated server connected to the LAN or SAN. Hi-Stor partners with a variety of vendors. Imation, for example, provides services that interface with StorSentry.

Spectra Logic library tops 1PB

Spectra Logic's T680 LTO-4 tape library packs more than a petabyte of compressed capacity in a single rack with 680 cartridges. Via the company's TranScale technology, users can seamlessly migrate to a T950 library with more than 10,000 tape cartridges.

The company's BlueScale software provides a single point of management for encryption (with key management across all Spectra Logic library models), hardware and software health indicators, power usage reporting, and library partitioning.

The T680 supports 12 full-height LTO-4 tape drives, and a throughput rate of 10.4TB per hour (with data compression). Connectivity options include Fibre Channel, SCSI or iSCSI.

Spectra Logic has also extended its Media Lifecycle Management (MLM) technology outside of its libraries with the introduction of the MLM Reader, a portable device that allows users to check tape health on any system with a USB port. The MLM Reader provides tape media health scores, and is designed to identify faulty media so that users can migrate data to avoid data loss.

MLM software is an extension of Spectra Logic's BlueScale software, and tracks more than 30 statistics on tapes, including export details, remaining capacity, encryption information, number of reads and writes, date of last access, and cleaning logs. The software reports on "at-risk" media in order to identify problems before they occur.

Tape media shipments: LTO on a roll

Backup tape drive and media technology represented a $2.1 billion market in 2008, with drives accounting for almost $924 million in revenue and media accounting for almost $1.2 billion in revenues, according to the Santa Clara Consulting Group.

In the first quarter of 2009 (the most recent period for which data is available), media manufacturers shipped about six million LTO cartridges, with LTO-4 accounting for 31% of total unit shipments and 45% of revenues. Sales of LTO-1, LTO-2 and LTO-3 cartridges were down significantly, although LTO-3 accounted for 39% of unit shipments and 32% of revenues. Hewlett-Packard shipped the most LTO cartridges in Q1 with a 30% market share, followed by Fujifilm.

In the DDS/DAT market segment, 1.9 million tape cartridges were shipped in the first quarter (representing revenues of $14 million), with the DAT-72 format accounting for 35% of unit shipments and 48% of revenues. DAT-160 represented 14% of the revenues. Hewlett-Packard led this market segment with a 52% market share.

The DLT-S tape format accounted for 410,000 unit shipments in Q1, with Quantum leading this market segment, followed by HP and Maxell. DLT-V cartridge shipments were down to 240,000 units in the first quarter, led by Quantum and HP.

AIT cartridge shipments were down to 290,000 units in Q1, with Sony holding on to a 96% market share.

Shipments of QIC cartridges totaled 110,000 units, with Imation being the leading supplier.

And 8mm metal particle cartridge shipments dwindled to 40,000 units in Q1, with Sony leading this market segment with a 71% market share. Tandberg supplies 8mm metal evaporated cartridges for its VXA and Mammoth drives, and sold about 7,000 tape cartridges in the first quarter, according to the Santa Clara Consulting Group.

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This article was originally published on August 01, 2009