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Avoiding Data Recovery – Care of Computer Backup Tapes

A backup tape is a high capacity and low cost item, but what it contains can be vital to the well being of your business and, whilst data recovery services are available to salvage data from damaged or failed tapes, it is better to never have a problem in the first place.

The best source of information about the care and maintenance of your backup tapes is that provided by the manufacturer, and it is essential that you read the manufacturers guidelines. In general though, the critical elements of tape care are as follows:

Correct storage, handling and transportation are essential if your data is to be safeguarded and last for its desired retention period. Media may be claimed to last for 20 or 30 years, but only if treated properly.

Also, a backup is only a backup if it can be restored. If you have never carried out test restores from a tape then you could be wasting your time and nurturing a false degree of confidence about the security of your data.

Handling of Tape Cartridges

Increases in capacity of tapes come with the use of often thinner materials and an increase in recording density. For this reason the susceptibility to damage increases along with the volume of data that will be lost in the event of a failure.

Follow following basic rules be followed with tape data cartridges:

Avoid the stacking of tape cartridges, use properly designed storage racking that is anchored to prevent toppling. Tapes piled up can easily be knocked over, and the ones at the top of the pile could land with quite a jolt and be damaged.

If a tape cartridge is dirty or damaged do not attempt to use it in a drive. External dirt could be indicative of a more serious internal problem, and visible damage could mean that the cartridge mechanism will not operate correctly and the tape could be damaged within the drive.

Only affix labels to the recommended positions on the tape cartridge to avoid the risk of a label peeling off inside the drive and causing damage. If a tape has a label that is peeling off, replace it before attempting to use the cartridge.

Unless necessary to check for damage (and then do it carefully), do not lift the door or flap on the cartridge and expose the tape. With some cartridges it is easy to cause damage when closing the flap.

Never touch the tape, not even the non-recorded surface. Contaminants from fingers can cause failure, sometimes months down the line, and when the tape is wound the non-recorded surface is in contact with the recorded surface and so contaminants can be transferred.

If a data cartridge is dropped

If a tape is dropped, even if there is no visible damage, there could be damage inside that could cause a failure when the tape is used. If a tape has been dropped and the data is still available on the system then back the data up again then retire the suspect cartridge. If not then seek expert advise as any attempt to use the tape could result in data loss.

Transportation of tape cartridges

For any movement of tapes, even if only for short distances within your office, proper packaging should be used. Tape transportation cases are inexpensive and will protect the tape cartridges from damage.

Where tapes are to be transported over longer distances, especially where third-party is involved, then additional precautions should be taken.

Use a direct carrier so that your data is not sitting in a shipping warehouse for protracted periods of time with no consideration for temperature and humidity.

Ensure the any packaging is sealed to prevent any ingress of contaminants such as dust and dirt.

Saving a few pence on packaging and transportation could cost a lot if there is a problem.
Guidance on tape shipping containers:

Packaging must be strong enough to withstand the impacts that occur during shipping.

Data cartridges must be cushioned and separated so that they cannot damage one another.

The general level of padding must be enough to prevent any external impact transferring enough force to damage the contents.

Clean containers must be used to prevent contamination of the tape cartridge.

Inspect well before shipping and ensure that the tapes are checked thoroughly when they arrive.

Environmental considerations and tapes

Imation, from their website, recommend a minimum 80mm gap between the surface of any cartridge and the outer surface of a transport container to protect against magnetic fields.

Tape cartridges must not be stored in areas where there is a high level of dust, or any risk of exposure to corrosive chemicals or gas or in an area where there is a risk from flooding or there is no fire protection or suppression.

Tape cartridges they should be allowed to acclimatise in the recommended environmental conditions for at least 12 hours, preferably 24, before any attempt is made to access data from them. Bear in mind that the packaging could have insulating properties and could extent the time required.

Stick to the guidelines on how many time to use a tape

Over use of tapes is a prime culprit when data recovery is needed. A small monetary saving could be translated into an expensive tape recovery or even a total data loss.

Remember that each backup could entail multiple passes along the tape so the number of “real” uses allowed might be far smaller then the tape passes guideline.

Play it safe and keep your data safe.

Mark Sear has been involved in data recovery, data conversion, data migration and computer forensics since the early 1980s working as a data recovery engineer, software developer and up until 2006 as the Technical Director of one of the word’s leading data recovery companies with offices in the UK, Germany, US and Norway.


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