Tape Rescues Big Data
When physicists throw the “on” switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), between three and six gigabytes of data spew out of it every second. That is, admittedly, an extreme example. But the flow of data from smaller sources than CERN, the European particle-research organization outside Geneva that runs the LHC, is also growing inexorably. At the moment it is doubling every two years. These data need to be stored. And that need for mass storage is reviving a technology which, only a few years ago, seemed destined for the scrapheap: magnetic tape.
Alberto Pace, head of data and storage at CERN, says that tape has four advantages over hard disks for the long-term preservation of data.
The first is speed. Although it takes about 40 seconds for an archive robot to select the right tape and put it in a reader, once it has loaded, extracting data from that tape is about four times as fast as reading from a hard disk.
The second advantage is reliability. When a tape snaps, it can be spliced back together. The loss is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes—a bagatelle in information-technology circles. When a terabyte hard disk fails, by contrast, the result is usually that all the data on it is lost.
The third benefit of tapes is that they do not need power to preserve data held on them. Stopping a disk rotating by temporarily turning off the juice—a process called power cycling—increases the likelihood that it will fail.
The fourth benefit is security. If a hacker with a grudge managed to break into CERN’s data center, he could delete all 50 petabytes of the disk-held data in minutes. To delete the same amount from the organization’s tapes would take years.
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