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The dangers of recycled tape media.

In an era of tightening IT budgets, storage administrators are constantly searching for ways to stretch their limited budget dollars. One tempting option that has emerged is value-price reconditioned or re-certified tape media, particularly with DLTtape and Super DLTtape products. Resellers are increasingly offering this "previously-owned" media for a fraction of the price of new tape cartridges.

Used tapes are typically marketed as having been cleaned, degaussed and refurbished to perform just as well as new tapes. It's a relatively easy task to go online and locate multiple resellers that are offering bargain-priced media promised to be in "like new" condition. But there are multiple quality, reliability and business-related issues that customers must consider before risking their business-critical data to recycled media.

The primary problem with recycled media is that the potential bargain hunter has no idea where this media has been used (or abused), the quality and cleanliness of the drives it has been used in, or how it has been stored. Simply put, you don't know where this tape has been, and once the media becomes damaged, no amount of reconditioning will repair it to a reliable and "like-new" state.

For example, if a tape was previously used in a drive that was not well maintained and had accumulated dirt and debris from dirty heads, roller guides and other transport assemblies, it may be transferred to the tape media. When these recycled tapes are subsequently used in a good drive, they may transfer some or all of those contaminants and degrade a previously clean drive. As the new drive becomes contaminated, a variety of problems can result, including premature head wear, debris accumulation on critical parts of the drive transport, and then damage to the tape. This leads to an even larger media impact as any new tapes that are used in the drive can also be damaged, quickly mitigating the short-term cost savings of buying recycled media. In effect, a single used cartridge becomes a "virus," infecting the tape drive and potentially all other cartridges in an automated library that are used in that drive.

A recycled cartridge that contains even minor--and unseen--undetected damage can create major problems for unsuspecting users. Recycled media that has been misused can have scratches on the surface of the media that may deepen over time with repeated use. As the scratches become more pronounced, tape debris can begin peeling off the tape and can lodge in the read/write heads, causing head clogs. Clogged heads, in turn, may produce scoring or scratching of other tapes in the library, again inflicting damage on numerous new cartridges as a result of using a single recycled tape.

Another great unknown with recycled media is whether the tape has been stored properly. Magnetic tapes that have been kept in extended storage in environments of extreme humidity or temperature may become fragile and are more likely to snap or stretch the next time they are used in a drive. When a tape is stretched, it may reduce head-to-tape contact, increasing read-write errors and dramatically reducing data throughput.

Recyclers promote the fact that the used media is degaussed and returned to a good-as-new condition, but this is another potential problem area. The degaussing process is designed to erase the tape magnetically back to a virgin state. Mid-range products such as DLTtape IV, Super DLTtape and LTO Ultrium data cartridges have a very high coercivity, in excess of 1800 oersted. This extremely strong magnetic property requires a very large and powerful magnet to satisfactorily perform a wipe that makes the tape completely clean. In many eases, recyclers do not have adequate equipment to properly degauss such high output media. Trying to degauss DLTtape and Super DLTtape with an underpowered magnet leaves the tape with remnants of files and recoverable remnants of data. This is particularly dangerous for companies selling old tape to recyclers and may unwittingly be exposing confidential information to the world.

The degaussing process is also of special concern to LTO users. Unlike DLTtape and Super DLTtape media which incorporates embedded optical servo tracks on the back side of the tape. LTO formats use a servo system that is written to the tape at the manufacturer's facility. When an LTO cartridge is degaussed, the servo tracks are erased along with any data and the tape becomes unusable.

Quality control and product testing that are fundamental to mid-range tape manufacturing are lacking with recycled tapes. Before the tape is inserted in the cartridge, it is evaluated for uniformity and for proper tape packing to ensure there is no edge damage or other abnormalities that can impact performance. All newly-manufactured media is tested to ensure it will mount properly when inserted into the drive. Maxell also randomly performs a series of tests with data written to the tape, read back, erased and then read again to ensure that the erase procedure was successful and no remnant data remains on the tape. All of this stringent testing and quality control is sacrificed when customers buy recycled tapes.

Even more threatening than resellers who actively promote recycled media are those suppliers who purchase used media and then re-package the tape and sell it as new media to unsuspecting customers. The old maxim that if a deal looks too good to be true, then it probably is certainly applies in this case. An alarm should go off when buyers find ridiculously low prices for "new" DLTtape. Super DLTtape and LTO Ultrium media. There is a good chance that the supplier is selling repackaged used media as "new." In addition to the obvious risk to customer data, this practice undercuts the business of legitimate resellers offering certified new media and can damage the reputation of the media manufacturer whose products are being misrepresented.

To protect customers and authorized resellers, many of the top manufacturers of DLT media have implemented a security seal that prevents used media from being re-sold as new. For example, the tamperproof security seal affixed onto Maxell's products protects customers from fraudulently packaged DLTtape and Super DLTtape media. Once the package is opened, the seal leaves a permanent "void" mark, which cannot be removed, making it very difficult for gray market resellers to sell reconditioned media as new. The security seal is now a standard feature on all DLTtape and Super DLTtape media, including cleaning cartridges.

When tempted by the low price of recycled media, there are two other issues customers need to consider: The cost to replace data lost due to inferior media, and the insurance issues related to such an incident. The cost to recreate approximately 100 gigabytes of data stored on an LTO or Super DLTtape cartridge could cripple a business, especially if the data could not be recreated at all. Increasingly, data exists only in electronic form, lacking the paper-based "backups" which could be used to re-enter lost computer data. While the costs of recreating data vary greatly based on the application, according to Strategic Research Corp., the average hourly cost to recreate data is around $50,000, but can range as high as $2 million for some e-commerce sites.


Companies that have business continuity insurance policies to cover specific equipment and data-loss incidents need to be aware that the failure of a backup performed with recycled media might invalidate that coverage. Polices that typically cover the costs of losing data because of physical disasters or hardware or media failure often carry exclusions that specify that no coverage will be provided for loss due to excessive media wear. Using recycled media of unknown origins and usage history could trigger such coverage exclusion.

Purchasing media is just like any other storage purchase where understanding the total cost of ownership is fundamental to making the correct buying decision. As with any TCO analysis, the simple truth is that price is only one piece of the cost equation, and anyone who buys on price alone is making an uninformed decision. The potential long-term costs of using recycled media (damage to drives, loss of data, contaminating new media with a library) vastly outweigh any savings in the initial purchase. The smart choice--and the lowest TCO--is to stick with reputable resellers who provide new media from quality manufacturers.

Peter Brinkman is vice president of marketing at Maxell Corporation of America (Fair Lawn, NJ)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Backup/Restore
Author:Brinkman, Peter
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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