LTO tapes are a highly reliable archival and backup storage solution with just one problem; equipment for the medium is extremely expensive for an individual without an enterprise budget. If you limit yourself to LTO technologies produced within the last five years, you’ll quickly find that you’ll be spending thousands of dollars for an amount of storage that can quickly be achieved with a few hard-disks. However, if you start turning the clock back further you’ll quickly discover that there is a sharp drop-off in prices for second-hand LTO equipment, whilst still keeping relatively high storage capacities.

I decided to target LTO-3 in my specific instance and was able to collect an external LTO-3 tape drive for $90 and four LTO-3 tapes (which store 400GB each uncompressed) for around $45. Let’s see how that stacks up compared to other storage mediums:

  Cost (AUD) Storage Cents per GB
1TB Western Digital Blue Drive, new $69 1000 GB 7c/GB
50 DVD-Rs from office supply store $15 235 GB (4.7 * 50) 6c/GB
A single second-hand LTO-3 Tape Cartridge $20 400GB 5c/GB
Lot of 4 Second-hand LTO-3 Tape Cartridges $45 (Assuming reduced unit price) 1600GB 3c/GB

Second-hand tape media is extremely cheap in terms of cents per GB as IT departments of various organisations are constantly looking to discard their old unused LTO media. An LTO tape drive can only write to up-to a generation before it, and read up-to two generations before it, and this creates what I presume to be a lot of turn over of tape equipment.

Buying decade-old tape equipment does not come without it’s downsides though. To name a few issues:

  • LTO-3 drives and prior typically use SCSI. Believe it or not, most computers don’t actually come with SCSI anymore. You’ll have to find a SCSI host adapter to suit your PC, and that typically means buying some form of a card. PCI SCSI cards can be found relatively cheap second-hand, but PCIe SCSI cards are stupidly expensive for what they’re worth.
    • SCSI itself is a completely separate issue on it’s own, with different connector types, cable types, voltages, and terminators all being things you have to consider when purchasing your SCSI equipment.
  • LTO-4 and newer drives use SAS instead of SCSI cabling, which is easier to buy for at the trade-off of a more expensive drive.
  • Tape drives are not random access; you cannot use them like you would a flash drive. Instead, you need to compile archives of data to write and read to the tape in one hit.
  • Microsoft removed backup-to-tape support in Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008. You’ll have to use a third-party backup solution like Veeam on Windows. However, tape support still exists in Linux. OS X is off the map.

I’m yet to actually setup and use the drive that I purchased simply due to all the extra cabling and cards I had to purchase as-well. However, I believe that it will come out more cost-effective than say, DVDs, after I store more than a few terabytes.