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Mitigate Storage Media Lifecycle Risks

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted May 30, 2008


Drew Robb
Servers, storage and networking gear get all the glory in IT purchasing while disk and tapes are all but forgotten. Yet the latter account for a small but significant amount of IT spending — and contain all of the data when it comes time to get rid of aging gear.

Tape may not be glamorous, but it remains a key component of many storage infrastructures and accounts for a significant amount of IT spending. The medium itself carries several inherent risks when it comes to both buying and disposing.

Like everything else, there is a right way to buy and a wrong way, as well as a smart method of gaining some value from old tapes. One red flag is a deal that seems too good to be true. It very well may be. Occasionally, you may even be dealing with forgeries — used gear being passed off as new.

"Used media being misrepresented as new media is a fairly common problem today," said John Goode, manager of media product management at Quantum (San Jose, Calif.), "You have to inspect it closely and ask the right questions before buying."

Things to think about include: Does the packaging look genuine and complete? Are you buying it from a reputable source? Does the media show any evidence of damage or being dropped?

Buying and Getting Rid of Tape

With tape, the first point to consider is the format itself. Some tape formats don't allow you to read/write data to older generations, or they are only backward compatible for one generation. Others give you two generations. With the most recent generation of LTO and DLT, you can at least read back two generations. An LTO-4 drive, for example, can read from LTO Ultrium 4, LTO Ultrium 3 cartridges and LTO Ultrium 2 cartridges.

If you have an older format you've been using for a few years, however, that doesn't automatically mean you should engage in an upgrade. There may be no reason to change, especially if the older tape drive is used for simple backups, has sufficient capacity, and you have a supply of cartridges. However, drivers for change include the need for faster backups, more capacity, compatibility with software and the need to archive for many years. Such enhancements are usually introduced with new generation media releases.

What about the tape itself? Tape is already the lowest cost per GB storage medium available, so people sometimes get sloppy about their tape purchasing habits. Instead of placing orders for one or two tapes every other month, for example, look at your annual consumption and buy in bulk.

"Buying a larger volume, such as a six to 12 month supply and asking for a discount is probably the best way to save," said Goode. "Even large online resellers, if you call them and speak to them directly, offer discounts."

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Another way to gain value from tape purchasing is to use old tapes to leverage new sales. Data Media Source of (San Jose, Calif.), buys all kinds of tape formats. Recycling such tapes is difficult due to the many different components involved. The best way to recycle, therefore, is to reuse.

"Most tape, even as old as round reel tape, has some reuse value," said Russ Hill, purchasing director at Data Media Source. "Most people just don't know that there is value in their excess or used media."

He said there are some dodgy characters out there, so look for a reputable firm when selling your tape, and always ask for references. Otherwise, your old data could end up in the wrong hands.

"Confirm that they actually erase data by sending tape to be processed, having it returned, and confirming the data has been destroyed," said Hill. "Take a tour of the facility. Ask about the process from pickup to data destruction."

Another thing not to get rid of, interestingly enough, is obsolete tape drives. If you have a store of old tapes you must keep for backup or compliance purposes, what are you going to do when you have to restore from that tape — perhaps for e-discovery reasons for an ongoing court case? Your shiny new platform may not be able to do anything with an ancient format.

"If you need to recover the data later, you need a tape drive that can read your tapes," said Goode. "It is also good to archive the original software and even the computer or at least the operating system in case later versions are not compatible. The alternative is to copy old tapes onto new-generation tape drives and tapes to ensure the data is retrievable."

Buying and Disposing of Disks

Hard drives are best purchased direct from the OEM or hard drive manufacturer. Most disk array vendors, for example, provide capacity upgrades or drive replacements.

"Adding drives to an array can be done individually or in RAID groups," said Philip Fote, storage product marketing manager for EMC (Hopkinton, Mass.). "It's important to note that the hard drives for sale at Best Buy are not the same products sold by storage vendors and don't meet the specifications of storage arrays. Customers are better off buying capacity directly from the storage vendor."

For those with older disk arrays that have plenty of capacity and where data needs aren't expanding too rapidly, it's probably safe to continue buying drives for it as long as you can. But if you are experiencing a storage explosion, it's less expensive to get a new array than it is to attempt to muddle through with what you have.

"Adding capacity to an existing storage array is always the least-expensive way to add storage," said Fote. "However, some of the older arrays don't support the new technologies and larger capacity drives, which are all designed to increase functionality and lower costs."

When it's time to dispose of servers or storage boxes, it is vital to ensure data on the hard drives is properly removed. There are three basic methods:

  • Degaussing: Using powerful magnets to obliterate the data. This works, but it may adversely affect other components on the drive and render it inoperable. If you want to reuse the server or sell it to defray the costs of new purchases, degaussing is not an option.
  • Overwriting: Repeatedly overwriting the disk with random 0s and 1s according to standards such as those of the Department of Defense, which requires three passes over the disk. This renders the data generally unrecoverable, although it may be possible to get some of it back using special forensic tools.
  • Shredding: Physically destroying the disk by shredding or drilling holes in it, and so on.

Companies like Redemtech (Columbus, Ohio) and World Data Products (WDP) of Minnetonka, Minn. are prepared to do whatever it takes to safety dispose of data on hard drives.

"We'll do whatever the company requires of us in terms of data erasure," said Neil Vill, chief executive officer of WDP. "For one company it may be three passes, for another it might be drilling holes in the drive, for another it might be shredding it and providing back the pieces."

There can be major repercussions for those that do it incorrectly or neglect data disposal utterly. Bob Houghton, president of RedemTech, said there are plenty of regulations around these days that demand responsible disposal.

"You don't want to have to explain to shareholders or customers why the equipment is showing up in a dump in Pakistan or going to a blast furnace in Canada," he said.

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