As major tape manufacturers turned in a lackluster--though far from dismal--performance last quarter (product revenues for StorageTek, which Sun Microsystems is acquiring, climbed around 6 percent while revenues at Quantum rose a scant 1 percent), a recent research report from the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) questions the long-term future of tape technology in companies' storage infrastructure. The ESG research shows that storage professionals are replacing their tape-based secondary storage systems with disk-based alternatives and will continue to do so, perhaps at an accelerating rate, over the next several years.

ESG surveyed 163 IT managers at public and private companies across North America. The respondents come from some of the largest companies on the continent. Twenty-nine percent work at companies with revenues in excess of $5 billion annually. Forty-six percent are at companies with more than 10,000 employees. And 42 percent have 100TB of data or more stored. These companies represent the major traditional market for enterprise-class tape drives.

The study found that 18 percent of the IT managers had already permanently replaced some or all of their enterprise-class tape libraries with large-scale, nearline disk arrays. And a whopping 58 percent say they'd consider making a similar move in the future. Only 24 percent say they wouldn't consider swapping tape systems for disk alternatives.

The news gets worse for tape manufacturers. Companies that have begun replacing tape with disk are moving significant amounts of data to disk. Sixty percent of the first wave of companies to go to disk say they've already moved to disk more than 20 percent of the information stored on tape. And 60 percent of all respondents estimate they'll transfer to disk 40 percent of the data stored on tape over the next 3 years.

According to the study, the move from tape to disk could be pronounced over the next 24 months. Thirty-five percent of the respondents say they'd consider moving some of their enterprise-class tape libraries to disk within the next 12 months, and another 40 percent said they'd consider making the change within the next 24 months.

Tape storage, of course, is one of the most memorable technologies in computing. It's been strikingly depicted in movies from the 1960s--the ones with white-jacketed scientists wearing black-rimmed glasses scurrying around computer rooms filled with cabinet-sized open-reel tape drives. Watching those movies, many viewers probably thought the drives were the computers. So with a nearly half-century legacy, why would the use of tape wind down now?

Interestingly, the answer isn't that companies are unhappy with tape technology per se. Fully 86 percent of those surveyed said that they're either satisfied or very satisfied with their existing tape libraries. Only 4 percent said that they're dissatisfied.

The problem is that tape technology simply no longer meets these companies' need for primary backup. Around half the respondents say that limitations in tape technology hurt their ability to back up data and recover from failures as quickly as they'd like. In fact, the two primary business drivers for replacing tape with disk are the need to improve backup-and-recovery processes (77 percent) and the need to improve business continuity and disaster recovery processes (60 percent). Other significant business drivers leading to the replacement of tape are IT pros' desire to reduce operational expenses associated with tape libraries (47 percent) and the desire to reduce capital expenses associated with tape libraries (30 percent).

Ironically, while cost is driving IT pros away from tape, it's also an impediment to moving to disk. Indeed, cost is one of major misgivings companies have about adopting disk solutions. The other significant doubt is IT pros' concerns about the ability of disk solutions to meet long-term, off-site data-archiving requirements. In short, disk drives aren't portable; tape cartridges are.

So although tape is apparently losing its status as the primary backup solution, IT pros still prefer using it for archiving. All the companies that ESG surveyed that have started implementing disk for backup still use tape libraries to some degree. Most respondents anticipate continuing to use tape for long-term, off-site and secondary backup applications.

But the use of tape for archiving may come under pressure as well. As news reports of lost data tapes abound and WAN bandwidth improves, even very large companies may begin to opt for disk-only archiving solutions.