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Tape Backup Technologies in the Compliance Arena

Discussions about advances in computer and storage technology typically focus on changes in the underlying technologies that manifest as benefits to users of storage products. But, in the case of storage technologies, specifically backup, the discussion isn't focused on underlying technology but on regulatory compliance.

Exasperating IT administrators everywhere, the terms HIPPA, Sarbanes-Oxley, and SEC Rule 17a-4 are forcing storage and backup administrators to address matters that have nothing to do with technology or their core business problems (although you could consider the regulation issues a business problem). For backup, however, these various regulatory requirements have pushed tape vendors to offer permanent and semi-permanent backup solutions that ensure legal compliance. Tape backup vendors are incorporating write once, read many (WORM) technologies into their latest offerings.

Enterprise tape storage basically falls into two camps: DLT and Linear Tape-Open (LTO) technologies, with Quantum's DLT tape backup products currently leading the way (in terms of capacity and announced capacity increases). However, LTO vendors such as Sony are quickly releasing products to keep the competition hot. The two technologies take different approaches to solving the regulatory problem via WORM techniques.

In the LTO world, WORM use requires a type of tape cartridge that differs from the standard LTO tape. The LTO drive recognizes the tape as WORM and either only appends data to the tape or refuses to write additional data if the tape is full.

Quantum uses a regular DLT tape cartridge and firmware in the tape drive to implement its DLTice technology. Current users of Quantum SDLT 600 drives can upgrade them with the firmware, which will be a standard part of future Quantum drives. The firmware recognizes a WORM-information header on the tape and treats the tape accordingly.

As you might expect, the folks on the LTO side of the argument feel that the DLT guys have the wrong idea, since a DLT WORM tape could conceivably be overwritten in a drive that doesn't recognize the WORM header information. The DLT folks see DLT as a cost benefit; they believe that data that expires over time (e.g., legal requirements for keeping data available for 12 to 24 months), which means that tapes could be recycled, resulting in a long-term cost savings.

From my discussions with IT managers, I've found that most of them aren't really concerned about the long-term cost savings that the DLT methodology might provide (although most are currently using some form of DLT tape drive for backup). One or two have expressed some concern about the safety of DLT WORM data and the potential for abuse. For the most part, though, the managers are more concerned about having a reliable methodology on hand to deal with the storage requirements of the various regulations that affect their businesses. (I should mention that most of the IT managers I talked to about these topics are in the healthcare industry and are primarily concerned with data security instead of long-term data availability. Thus, their opinions about the various tape backup technologies might be somewhat skewed.)

What I'd hate to see is the government trying to get more involved in specifying acceptable technologies. This is one concept on which all the IT folks I've talked to agree; they feel that they--not the government--should determine how to achieve regulatory compliance for their organizations by using technologies that work best within their business model. They don't want the government to mandate which storage technologies are acceptable.

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