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The sunset of the virtual tape library

Mark Bentkower, Director of Enterprise Solutions Asia Pacific, CommVault Systems | Sept. 1, 2014
Virtual tape, and later virtual tape libraries (VTL) have been used in the data center for more than 15 years. With the increasing volume of data organizations have to deal with, new needs and expectations have emerged in terms of backup solutions and strategies, and while VTL was seen as a high performance backup solution in the past, it is now in its sunset phase.

Continued marketing of VTLs is a way for vendors to hold margin on 'tin and spindle' products by playing up the 'unique' and 'high value' technology of VTL with deduplication.

While the primary storage world is moving to disc tiering their primary storage - in order to drive down TCO - marketing of VTL suggests that we should remove cost effective tiers of storage from secondary (backup) storage and instead "trust" in de-duplication to provide a return on the prodigious investment required to store everything on premise and on VTL Disk.

Hence in order to sell the platforms now that most mainstream products backup to disk (and not disk pretending to be tape), appliance vendors have re-spun the sales pitch stating that "unique algorithms" offer "cost savings" backed by unrealistic, grossly misleading hype statements like 20:1 De-duplication ratios.

The real commercial story is that VTLs are a long term, cost lock-in strategy that primarily benefits the storage vendor. Retiring tape tiers of storage in lieu of putting everything on VTL rarely, if ever, reduces TCO. Marketing de-duplication ratios are rarely achievable in real day to day business practice across the wide variety of data types that an enterprise has to manage and ultimately leads to untimely additional purchases of VTL storage and "TCO shock" when the solution vastly under delivers promised savings.

The real technical story

While there is potentially still a technical benefit argument for VTL deployed specifically for fiber channel backup paths for old mid-range systems that are still lurking in datacenters, this highly niche benefit in will continue to diminish as legacy midrange server platforms continue to get replaced by modern open systems platforms.

A good example was seen last year, when Malaysian financial services group Syarikat Takaful Malaysia Berhad revamped its entire data management and storage software in a bid to improve its IT infrastructure and lower operating costs. Like most other companies - the group was experiencing rapid data growth - from 7TB to approximately 20TB within the span of two years. Faced with the challenging task of re-architecting its data management infrastructure, Takaful chose to design a disk-based solution able to consolidate its multiple data protection products into one integrated platform. The data management solution provided a dedicated backup server for each of Takaful's two active sites, replacing the previous 12 that had previously been required, and enabling end-to-end disk-to-disk-to-tape backup. Takaful now enjoys a secure infrastructure that can easily scale to support 80TB of data, at a lower cost.

In today's world, where data is being generated exponentially, businesses need to not only ensure their most important data is protected by effective data management policies, but they also need to be able to restore any data easily and rapidly. This means using a combination of SAN snapshot capability and block level backup to primary disc. The era of big data is here, and it's time to retire the VTL.


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