Tape Backup: An Ironic 60th Anniversary For Tape

Bill Hobbib is Vice President of Marketing at ExaGrid Systems, a provider of scalable disk-based backup solutions with data deduplication.


The date was May 21, 1952. The U.S. Social Security Administration was badly in need of a more efficient system that would replace the punch cards used to store records of U.S. citizens.

The year before, the Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC I had been introduced (playing a key role in the tabulation of 1950 U.S. Census data), and magnetic tape was used to record computer data. However, the reels of tape media on the UNIVAC I were prone to wear and tear.

IBM’s solution to the problem was the IBM 726 magnetic tape reader and recorder. The world’s first tape drive was capable of reading and writing at 12,500 digits per second, with each tape able to store 2 million digits. Some of the tapes were 1,200 feet long. The IBM 726 used vacuum columns, which provided a buffer and made it possible to start and stop at high speeds without damaging the media. It was a major breakthrough, speeding up the process of recording data by 50 times, compared to punch cards. (See our 60 Years of Storage Gallery for photos.)

For context, let’s look at what happened in the world that same month — the “Mr. Potato Head” toy was introduced, the first commercial airline flight took place, and Georgia Gibbs’ “Kiss of Fire” topped the music charts. And red-headed comedienne Lucille Ball was on the cover of TIME magazine.

60th Anniversary

May 21, 2012 was the 60th anniversary of the IBM 726. In many data centers, while other storage technologies have come and gone, this obsolete, slower performing technology is still being used for data backup and on- or off-site disaster recovery.


IBM’s first tape drive was first deployed in the 1950s. See our 60 Years of Storage Gallery.

To give this anniversary of tape some further perspective, let’s look at some of the technologies that tape sprung from, along with how tape evolved from IBM’s original tape drive.

Punch Cards

The precursor technology to tape was punch cards. The textile industry first used punch cards in 1725 to control mechanized textile looms. The first punch card tabulating and sorting machines that could record information were developed by Herman Hollerith, founder of the company that would become IBM, in the late 1880s.

Paper Tape

Paper tape was pioneered by the textile industry as a way to send instructions to mechanized looms, starting in 1846. Paper tape offered one character for each row, and had a maximum capacity of a few dozen KB. It was this perforated paper tape system that was first used in some of the earliest telegraph machines

Magnetic Tape

Starting with the UNIVAC I machine in 1952, magnetic tape gradually became the dominant form of recording and archiving information. Tape drives using a motor were developed to wind tape between 10.5-inch reels.

To protect tape from being damaged by moisture, a plastic enclosure – also known as a cassette or cartridge – was developed in the 1960s. These became popular not only in data storage environments, but also the recording industry. Early home computers like the Commodore 64 and the TRS-80 used cassette tape drives.

Tape Made Obsolete

In 1956, IBM released the IBM 305 RAMAC, which used magnetic disk storage. It was the first commercial hard disk drive. It also signaled the beginning of tape’s decline as a reliable medium. In 1971, IBM released the first floppy disk, which was 8 inches in diameter and could store data more reliably compared to tape.  Later, compact discs, digital video discs, optical disks and storage devices that don’t have any moving mechanical components became the dominant technology for many consumers and business to store and archive data.

An Ironic Anniversary

It seems ironic that even with the quantum leap forward in storage technologies, many data centers still rely on tape for their archiving and disaster recovery, despite the fact that an estimated 10 to 50 percent of all tape restores fail.

When tape restores fail, it has a significant impact on your business in lost data and lost productivity, The National Computer Security Association estimates that it takes 21 days and $19,000 to recreate 20MB of lost accounting data, and 42 days and $98,000 to recreate 20MB of lost engineering data.

Despite other efforts to modernize data center infrastructure, such as though cloud computing or virtualization, data protection is stuck in the past with tape.

It would be similar to consumers today listening to their music on cassette tapes, having to fast forward and rewind through songs, when more user-friendly digital audio devices and optical discs are available.

Like a proverbial dinosaur in the data center, tape-based systems are plagued by unreliable backups (an unavoidable consequence of the fact that they are mechanical devices prone to wear and tear), restores take such a long time that they impact your productivity, and tapes can get lost or labels fall off.

Even for organizations that use tape to meet legal requirements for archiving, perhaps this anniversary should serve as a reminder that tape – like the rotary phone or snowy TV reception – is a technology whose time has come and gone. Many of those IT teams suffering from restore failures would probably agree.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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  1. Yvonne

    Hello - Which Gartner article are you citing in regards to 50 percent of tape restores failing? Thanks!

  2. Ginger

    It sounds like the author could probably get a nice marketing job at a disk company somewhere.

  3. Jeff

    It sounds like the alternative proposed is to leave the content on the magnetic or solid state form in which it is already being held... AKA not backing it up at all. Until an off-line medium has been proven to deliver the reliability of tape, (and not just the hyperbole that gets thrown around of "50% of restores fail" without actually citing evidence) it will be a fixture of the data center world going forward.

  4. Yaqub0r

    Ginger, check the author introduction: Bill Hobbib (the writer of this article) is Vice President of Marketing at ExaGrid Systems, a provider of scalable disk-based backup solutions with data deduplication. This is article is an embarrassment to datacenterknowledge,com.

  5. Dave

    Hey people, do yourself a favor and just go buy CommVault. Dedupe to any storage media, backup to tape reliably, great reporting, great people to work with. - Dave IT Operations Manager

  6. The first commercial airline flight took place decades earlier than 1952. It was the first jet-engine-powered commercial flight in that year. ...and I agree with the others, data restores from tape are not failing at 50%

  7. Doug

    "...tape-based systems are plagued by unreliable backups (an unavoidable consequence of the fact that they are mechanical devices prone to wear and tear)..." As opposed to "...disk-based backup solutions..." that you sell, and of course are not mechanical devices Magnetic tapes have issues, hard drives have issues, solid state has issues. It's about applicability. Tape is not dead I too would like to know the source of you're claims

  8. Nothing exagerated here. 50% is a consevrative estimate. Especialy if you are using BackupExec from Symantec. This is what we are facing eah day. This is why we double backup on two tapes and double backup on two disks.

  9. Warren Hulleman

    In the last three decades we have seen optical disc evolve. From CD TO DVD TO BLU-RAY AND NOW HVD

  10. Martin

    50% reliability problems with tapes? I don't believe it. 50% reliability problems with backup software I can believe, especially if it's written by Symantec, but I don't believe the physical tape drives are that unreliable, especially if you maintain them and clean them regularly as you are meant to.

  11. Marketing is just what it says, marketing. Tape is not dead it has just transitioned from primary to archive in larger data set sites, recovery is all important so it makes sense to stage to disk then de stage to tape. Recover from disk/dedupe - archive to tape for long term retention. For a longer term archive requirement which is managed, check out Arkivum. Every company has a different requirement based on their data sets.

  12. Steve

    This is nothing more than a pathetic mis-informed sales pitch.

  13. rich

    Tapes not dead who said it was was it a Mod or was it a Ted

  14. We still have many customers using tape as off site media.and they are NOT having any problems.

  15. Unimpressed

    To pickup on the comments about the unproven statistic, I'd recommend the blog be rewritten to say that it's a fact that an estimate of between 0% and 100% of backups from tape fail. That should cover the reality of what people who use tape properly get all the way to the hype. For anyone that comments about "well that's if you use tape properly", I've heard that if you don't replace failed parity disks, it turns out you can lose data on disk........ pesky mechanical devices spinning away when the data is at rest! Once we get off the one side is great / one side is terrible argument, there needs to be a recognition that in a lot of customers, a combination tape and dedupe disk is the correct solution to give protection, recovery of recent backups and then long term retention - and that anyone who says "tape is dead" is really saying "I don't have a tape solution".

  16. Thanks to all of our commenters. Many of you will likely be interested in today's new Industry Perspective column from IBM, titled "The Sticking Power of Tape Storage in the Age of Big Data." Here's the URL: http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2012/10/19/the-sticking-power-of-tape-storage-in-the-age-of-big-data/

  17. Dmytro

    So, Hard Drives aren't mechanical devices. And they are not prone to wear and tear. And SSD are forever as well. Ahha.

  18. Mark

    I have worked in the data warehousing industry for over 20 years. The first conference I went to had a guy predicting the certain demise of tape. Well, all these years later I more convinced that spinning disk will go away before tape does. I am not in love with tape. I would love to see it go away but, the fact remains that tape will probably be around for the next 20 years. If you are managing a petabyte or more of storage I think tape is unavoidable on the pure basis of cost.

  19. Mark

    I forgot to add that I have never seen anything near a 50% failure rate. I can honestly say in my 20 + years we have never lost a file (two copies on tape). One of our data providers tried to use 8mm tapes many moons ago and these had a high failure rate. However, 8mm was not developed to be a data format but rather a video format where some lose is acceptable.