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While some technology observers have long predicted the end of tape for use as a data storage medium, Staples Technology Solutions, the business-to-business division of Staples, said it is experiencing growth in tape sales, and that stories of tape’s demise are greatly exaggerated.
“We’re seeing slight growth in our tape business, and in an economy that is typically down,” said Steve Suesens, category manager for Staples Technology Solutions, one of the largest providers of data center media in the country.
“Tape sales are as strong as they’ve ever been,” he added. “The greatest change is companies are using tape differently.”

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Today, companies are using tape for nearline storage (when data is accessed infrequently) and offline storage (when data is stored off-site or archived), he said. Previously, companies frequently used tape for inline storage (when data is accessed quickly and regularly). Tape is generally slower than disk in both access time and transfer rate, so disk storage works better in this application, Suesens said.
Most of Staples Technology Solutions’ Fortune 500 customers use a combination of disk and tape for their backup storage needs, which is considered a best practice in the data center today, he said. By doing this enterprises can leverage the speed (access time and transfer rate) of disk for their inline data, and leverage the low cost, security, and reliability of tape for nearline and offline data storage needs, he explained.

“The long and short of it is the marketplace is really evolving, where you’re using alternative technology—disk technology coupled with data reduction—and really utilizing those disk-based systems for recovery and restore,” said Robert Amatruda, an analyst with IDC. “In many cases, it’s more efficient and less time-consuming to restore off disk, but tape is still being used and still evolving.”

Suesens credits tape’s longevity to its low cost, reliability, security, and green factor. “Tape has no motor, draws no power, so when tape is sitting in backup or archive it’s using zero power,” he said. “Drives, on the other hand, have electric motors and are always consuming some amount of electricity.”

Staples Technology Solutions, which leverages relationships with vendors Fuji, Oracle/Sun, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Imation, names financial institutions, telecoms, and medical facilities as their strongest customers, according to Suesens. Banks, brokerage houses, and financial lenders, with their large volumes of transactions that must be recorded, stored, and archived, are Staples’ largest vertical. Telecoms, with their tremendous data storage needs from smart phones, are second. Medical facilities, with their data-heavy medical records like MRIs and CAT scans, are Staple’s third largest vertical.

“Tape is still being used with gusto by very large organizations that really need to support archives, like financial institutions, medical, even scientific and big government projects that fall along those areas,” Amatruda said. “Even oil and gas companies that do scans of the ocean floor—they are accessing that data for a very long time, even 20 to 30 years.”

Still, IDC doesn’t see the tape market growing. Amatruda said the market for tape automated systems in 2009 was more than $1 billion, but IDC is projecting an 8 percent decline through 2014. Still, he said, tape is not going away.
“There’s still a market for it,” he said.