Magnetic tapes as an alternative to the Cloud, cheap ‘vintage’ security for data

If we say magnetic tapes, surely the first thing that comes to mind is the cassette or VHS (and Beta) tapes that the 1980s popularized and made popular icons forever. These analog storage media were replaced by more modern and secure ones such as optical storage -CD, DVD- or flash (SD cards, USB keys).

And suddenly the Cloud arrived and its ‘magical’ concept of save data in a non-physical space that means you don’t even have to carry a USB. Therefore, in the middle of 2021, the concept of magnetic tape sounds retro, outdated and unreliable, since that is why it was replaced as a storage medium. But… what if we told you that in 2021 the 2019 record was broken in terms of the sale of magnetic tapes as an alternative to the Cloud?

Magnetic tapes to store data

On mechanical hard drives, magnetism is the phenomenon used to store the ones and zeros, but magnetism is also central to VHS and cassette tapes. For many users, hard drives have been replaced by SSD drives, while access to movies and music is via various streaming services. However, both hard drives and magnetic tape are common in data centers. The latter category is now reported to have sold a record amount in 2021.

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According to Swedish outlet Sweclockers, last year some 150 million terabytes of capacity were sold, that companies use as backup against possible extortion attacks. HPE, IBM and Quantum, through the Ultrium LTO organization, are responsible for the report. LTO stands for Linear-Tape Open and is the standard used for many magnetic tapes and associated systems.

In 2021, 148 exabytes (148,000,000 terabytes) of compressed capacity were sold, 35% more than in the previous record year, 2019. In 2020, just over 100 exabytes were sold. However, with more capacity per storage unit, the number of cartridges sold is lower than in 2019.

Cheap and secure alternative to cloud storage

Magnetic tapes have capacity specifications in compressed and uncompressed versions, with the latest generation of LTO 9 products offering 45 and 18 TB of data in a single storage device, respectively. The main use of magnetic tape is for digital archives, which are often orchestrated by fully automated systems. Magnetic tape is a relatively cheap way to store a lot of information and to do it in a way that doesn’t risk losing the data over time, something that can happen with unpowered hard drives and SSDs.

According to Phil Goodwin, Director of Research at analytics firm IDC, “LTO tape is arguably the easiest and lowest cost method of achieving best practice ransomware recovery. Ransomware and malware are threats that are not going to go away. Magnetic tape is an established, understood and proven technology that can be an invaluable tool in defeating ransomware.”

Hack a VHS

Goodwin stresses that the threat of ransomware attacks makes it more important to have backups. Extortion attacks are something that has been in the news a lot in recent years and he says that won’t change in the future, making magnetic tape a proven and cost-effective way to prepare for potential attacks.

Magnetic tapes are coiled and magnetized tapes which are stored in a plastic box called a cartridge and work like old cassette tapes. Therefore, hacking the information contained in them would require a physical operation, literally copying the tapes just like when you copied a VHS or a cassette in a double deck player.

Besides, the reading process is very slow and to access certain data it must be rolled and unrolled, which implies time. Tape storage proposed by IBM It is not exactly the same technology known in VHS videos, but an evolution thanks to the contributions made from fields such as physics, magnetism, optics or chemistry. The multinational highlights the advantages of its use, such as its affordable cost in relation to other technologies such as Flash or external storage disks, its cyber-resilience, energy efficiency and potential scalability, compared to hard drives.

In this way, and although the evolution of the Cloud continues to be the prevailing technology in the future with less and less hardware to which we are going, it is very curious that in the 21st century, the improved versions of those ‘retro’ magnetic tapes are a of the cheapest and safest options for the security of digital data.