Ever wondered what happened to cassette tapes? When Sony announced a new magnetic tape with 3,700 times more storage than a Blu-ray disc in April 2014, this antiquated technology was brought back in the spotlight. But many were left wondering; why all this investment in making tape bigger and better, especially when there are so many other storage options to choose from?
Magnetic tape has been around for nearly a century. It was first invented for recording sound in 1928, but it has evolved into one of the most ubiquitous and reliable mediums for storing data. In a world crowded with sophisticated means of storage, such as SSDs and the cloud, it’s easy to forget the crucial role that magnetic tape plays in managing bank information.
There are many reasons magnetic tape could be a superior data storage solution – one being longevity. Unlike other forms of storage, tapes are built to last and are less susceptible to the risks modern drives face. In fact, tapes can still be read reliably after thirty years, whereas the average disk lasts a mere five years.
Modern storage mediums are also an expensive solution, especially considering the higher up-front costs and ongoing maintenance. The energy requirement to keep disks in HDDs safe is a contributing factor – consider how much cooling is needed to keep a data storage warehouse running. And, while the cloud has lower up-front costs, the ongoing expense can quickly add up. Tapes, on the other hand, are less expensive and don’t need sophisticated warehouses to keep them safe.
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Not only are modern storage mediums expensive, but there are inherent security risks with newer technology. Data uploaded to a server or cloud could be at risk for cyber-attacks or an outage. On the other hand, data that isn’t managed in a virtual environment is usually stored off-site and infrequently backed up. Therefore, proper data management is an ongoing balancing act: how can banks store confidential information in a way that’s protected from external threats, while still providing readily available access to the data when needed?
Undoubtedly, magnetic tape still has its place in many banks. The BSA record retention requirements mandate storing large amounts of confidential information for an extended period of time—data that can have a significantly longer shelf-life on tape than on other short-lived IT systems.
The Right Way to Save
The most important rule in data archiving is always to think long term. Tapes are designed to be maintained for an extended period of time, so data can be accessed when necessary, even if its 30 years down the road. In one instance, a bank was being audited and asked to produce over 35,000 records dating back to the 1980’s. Even though the bank took the business of archiving very seriously, the hardware used to store the tapes was no longer operational and they couldn’t access their records without the help of data recovery experts. Fortunately, the archived data could be recovered in a laboratory and migrated to newer media formats.
The appropriate tape reading hardware and software is critical, but so is making sure tapes are correctly labeled and cataloged so they can be easily located when needed. At another bank, nearly 300 tapes were accidently overwritten before their end of life, putting the bank at risk for non-compliance. The bank in turn required help to create a tape catalog confirming what was on the tapes and that it could be recovered in case it was needed.
If the data being stored on tape is no longer needed, companies need to know how to permanently and securely delete the highly sensitive information. Since tapes were designed with durability and longevity in mind, merely crushing the tape will not destroy information. To ensure proper disposal of the data, banks should demagnetize the storage media through degaussing. The degausser produces an extremely strong electromagnetic field destroying all the magnetic structures on the tape.
Old fashioned magnetic tape has a big future in the modern world as companies struggle to find ways to manage the rise of big data. Safe and reliable tape archiving involves more than just saving data to tape. It requires managers to work within retention periods and to create back up plans for when things go wrong. Banks need to have a clear data management policy in place, so that IT management understands what they need to do to safeguard information, and most importantly, who needs to take responsibility when data disasters strike.
Robert McKenzie is a senior tape engineer for Kroll Ontrack, a provider of solutions for managing and recovering data.