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Tape Storage Services Buying Guide

Media tapes stored all stacked on one another with a blue glow

After more than one hundred years in the business of helping clients store, manage and protect their information, Vanguard Archives has developed a deep understanding of our clients, our competitors and the industry we operate in.

Oftentimes our clients or prospects will ask us questions about our industry and about what separates us from our competitors. This Tape Storage Services Buyers Guide is intended to help buyers of our services better understand how our business works and what types of things they might want to look for when selecting a vendor.

The safety and security of your information will likely be a primary concern when selecting an offsite tape storage company. You may wish to visit prospective vendors to get a feel for the physical environment your tapes will be stored in and to understand how your tapes will be transported back and forth to your data center.

Physical building

Ensure top-of-the-line fire protection measures are in place such as vault firewalls and chemical fire suppression system. To protect your tapes from accidental water damage, ideally there will be no water sprinkler systems nor water pipes of any type running through the vault area. To ensure the long-term preservation and readability of your tapes, find out if environmental controls keep the vault at constant temperature and humidity levels and if backup systems are in place for both environmental control and power. Make sure sufficient security measures are in place, such as recorded video monitoring and multi-layer access controls employing biometrics. Ideally, your vendor should have third party alarm monitoring for unauthorized access as well as for environmental conditions such as water infiltration and temperature and humidity variance.

Transport vehicles

Your vendor's vehicles can give you an indication as to whether they take seriously the protection of your information. Vehicles should not have windows; cargo areas should be self-locking, double-locked and alarmed to deter break-ins. Vehicles should be GPS tracked so that the whereabouts of your data is known at all times.

It is vitally important that your vendor be able to return your tapes to you - quickly - when you need them. It is also critical that your vendor has tight chain of custody control over your tapes, since lost tapes can trigger expensive and embarrassing notification and credit monitoring requirements if the tapes contain personally identifiable information related to your employees or customers.

Standard operating procedures

Your vendor should have thoroughly documented policies and procedures covering all aspects of their operations. These procedures should be audited on a regular basis to ensure compliance. Tape handling procedures should include provisions for item barcode scanning each time a tape or container is touched. Ideally, you should have online access to the chain of custody history of each item. Some tape storage vendors will allocate specific shelf slots for your tapes, rather than intermixing your tapes with the tapes of other clients. This is an added control feature designed to highlight and prevent against misfiled tapes, ensuring that your tapes can be located without delay when you need them.

Employee training

Your vendor's employees should receive regular training on information handling procedures and on privacy rules. Employees should also be tested to ensure comprehension.

The level of service and support you can expect to receive is an important consideration when selecting an offsite tape storage vendor. Because your customer experience can differ significantly from one vendor to the next, you may wish to ask questions upfront that will help determine whether your experience will be a good one after you become a client.

Call centers

Find out if your vendor will handle customer service through a call center, or if you will have a single point of contact who will be directly accountable to you.

Issue escalation

Particularly if your vendor uses a call center, find out what the issue escalation process is. Most of the time call centers deliver satisfactory service, but when something goes wrong and needs fixing, you will want to be able to quickly get to someone who can solve your problem. Ask if you will have easy access to senior management for your more complex needs or in case of emergency.

There are two primary costs involved when using an offsite tape storage vendor: storage and services. Storage costs will be based on the number of tapes you store offsite. Service costs will be based on the number of rotations you do each month and how many items are rotated each time. For both storage and service, you should expect to receive better pricing at higher volume or activity levels.

National company versus local company

Logic might suggest that you would enjoy better pricing with a national company that enjoys larger operations and efficiencies of scale. However, in the data tape storage industry, this often is not the case. Competition is not very fierce for national accounts since there are only two national vendors. The efficiencies of dealing with only one vendor throughout the country can be outweighed by the lack of competitive pricing pressure. For small accounts, national vendors aim to make the same high profit margins that they do on their larger accounts. In order to achieve those margins, they charge high monthly minimum "administration" charges - including both monthly minimum storage charges and monthly account maintenance fees. These two fees taken together can make a national vendor more than twice as expensive as a non-national vendor.

Pricing tactics to look out for

When comparing vendors and budgeting internally for costs, make sure to get a complete picture of costs involved with using each vendor. Some companies have fuel surcharges that can vary from month to month and can increase your costs by 10% or more when fuel prices go up. Minimum service charges per order are another new tactic being used to increase the amount you pay each time you request service. These minimum service charges can be craftily designed to ensure they apply to almost all orders. If you expect to have your tapes individually slotted in the vault, your vendor will provide you "transport cases" for moving tapes back and forth. Find out if you will be charged a monthly storage and/or lease fee for transport cases. Also find out if there will be transport case handling charges (on top of tape handling charges) each time tapes are moved back and forth between you and the vendor. While these charges may seem inconsequential, they can add another 10% to the cost of each rotation.

Many companies still backup to tape, however tape's role in backup strategy has changed over the years. Historically, tape backup coupled with offsite tape storage was the best and only alternative for disaster recovery preparation. Today other alternatives involving disk-based backup are being combined with tape to make backup more thorough and to make recovery faster and more efficient.

Hot sites with data replication

Companies with large IT budgets and continuous up time needs often have hot sites to which their data is replicated. If their primary data center goes down, their hot site comes online with no delay or data loss. Many of these companies continue to backup to tape as a low cost last line of defense against data loss - for example, to protect against employee sabotage and malicious hacking. Tape backups provide the added benefit of allowing recovery of data from much earlier time periods, protecting against situations where an undetected error is introduced on both the primary servers and the replicated servers and not discovered until much later.

Disk-to-disk backup

Like tape backups, disk-to-disk backups involve creating data snapshots at particular points in time, allowing for recovery of files from earlier time periods. Being attached to the network, however, disk backups offer faster and more efficient file recoveries than tape. Some disk backup programs also offer continuous data protection and rollback ability, which tape doesn't offer. Nevertheless, many companies employing disk-to-disk backup still use tape for longer term archives and to protect against employee sabotage and malicious hacking. In addition to being a much less expensive option than allowing long term archive data sets to accumulate on costly and power-consuming disk, tape provides a last line of defense that is both offline and offsite.

It is possible to manage your own offsite data protection program without using a tape rotation service.


You can have your own employees take your tapes home at night, move the tapes to a different company-owned building, or transfer the tapes to a bank vault. While these alternatives come at a lower monthly cost than a third party rotation service, they also come with higher risk.


The most significant risk of a do-it-yourself strategy for moving tapes offsite is the potential for tapes to be lost or stolen while in transit (real-life examples have included car break-ins and lost briefcases). Such events trigger breach notification and credit monitoring requirements when the tapes contain personally identifiable information. A secondary risk is that tapes may be exposed to extreme heat or cold -for example in the trunk of a car - rendering them unreadable.

Rotation methods

There are many different ways to set up a tape rotation schedule, and a simple Google or Wikipedia search will give you detailed information on the options available. The most simple rotation method, called First In First Out, involves sending backup tapes offsite on a periodic basis (daily, weekly or monthly) and having the oldest tapes brought back to you for reuse. Typically, companies using the First In First Out method will have at least three backup sets, so that when the oldest set is brought back and exchanged for the most recent, the third set still remains offsite and protected. The Grandfather-Father-Son rotation method may be the most commonly used method. It is similar to First In First Out, but includes the periodic creation of long-term archival data sets. Producing archival tapes allows recovery of data from much earlier time periods and also protects against situations where an undetected error is introduced and not discovered until much later.

Rotation frequency

Regardless of what method is used, the frequency with which backups are taken and sent offsite is determined by how much data your company can afford to lose. For example, if your company can't afford to lose more than 24 hours of data then you should send tapes offsite daily.

Full vs. incremental vs. differential

Whether each backup set contains full, incremental or differential backups is determined by the time required to backup your data weighed against the complexity of the recovery should you need to restore your data. Full backups involve the most data and server downtime, but are the easiest to restore from. Differential backups involve lesser amounts of data, but the restoration process is more time consuming. Incremental backups involve the least amount of data, but the restoration process is the most cumbersome of the three options.

When moving tapes back and forth between your data center and the offsite vault, the tapes can be managed and tracked in one of two ways. They can be tracked at the individual tape level and "slotted" on shelves once they arrive at the vault. Or they can be placed into "closed containers," in which case the tapes remain inside of the containers while they are offsite.


With a slotted account, you pay based on the number of tapes being stored and handled. With a closed container account, costs are based on the number of containers stored and handled. Overall, your tape storage costs will be roughly the same whether you slot or use closed containers - slotted accounts tend to have somewhat lower storage charges, but also somewhat higher handling charges.

Pros and cons

Slotting results in better chain-of-custody since your vendor will scan the barcode of each tape every time it moves. Slotting also allows you to retrieve individual tapes if necessary, whereas with closed containers you can only retrieve entire containers. Closed container rotations, on the other hand, are somewhat easier to set up since rotation schedules only need to be created and maintained for one item (the container) instead of many (the tapes). Tapes that are sent to the vault for long-term archival storage rather than as part of a rotation schedule should almost always be slotted, since storage costs will be lower and there is no need to purchase closed containers upfront.

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