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LTO Tape. Even Mr. Robot Proof!

StorageExperts

 

During Season 1 of the hit TV show, "Mr. Robot"’ the lead character, a hacker on a mission to topple a malign conglomerate, has a plan to destroy E Corp’s backup tapes. And not just any old tapes, but LTO ones at that. 

Normally, television plays fast and loose with technical details in the pursuit of the cliffhanger, so how accurate was the show in discussing tape technology? Were there any plot lines that lead us to think fiction is stranger than truth after all? Read on!

I’m a big fan of box sets. Being British, something has to help us get through those long, dark winter nights, right? But even though I enjoy high quality drama, most of the time I’m watching fictional worlds that don’t have any relation to my day job. The Lannisters don’t have much need for tape archiving in Westeros. Rick Grimes has other things on his mind right now besides whether or not he needs to fit out a new HPE StoreEver MSL6480 tape library. And in between all the shenanigans on the Grantham estate at Downton Abbey, it’s a wonder anything ever gets done, let alone the backup.

Escaping the cold with Mr. Robot

So it was really interesting to watch that episode from Season 1 of "Mr. Robot" where Elliot described his plan to destroy E Corp’s backup tapes. And not just any old tapes, but LTO ones at that. I was so surprised that I almost leapt off the sofa with excitement!

Mr Robot Script Excerpt.pngWorking in the tape storage industry, you get accustomed to people at parties expressing surprise at your very existence, as if you were some prehistoric creature, long thought extinct, that suddenly fetches up inside a dormant volcano in East Africa. Having your product placed centre stage in the plot of a hit TV show is not something that happens every day.

Normally, television plays fast and loose with technical details in the pursuit of the cliffhanger, but "Mr. Robot'" has been widely praised for its accurate depictions of hacking and the technology that rules our lives.

However, there were still a few areas where I think we can safely say that fiction is indeed stranger than truth!

“Linear Tape Open Standard Nine”

First of all, the easy one, is that although LTO has a roadmap that takes us out to Generation 10, in 2016, current LTO technology is only at Generation 7, not “Linear Tape Open Standard Nine” as described in the show. LTO-7 delivers 15 TB of compressed data. LTO-9, when it appears towards the end of the decade, is planned to increase that to 62.5 TB, with transfer speeds more than double what LTO-7 provides now.

Mr Robot LTO Roadmap.jpg

 

Publishing a schedule with detailed specifications and milestones gives end users confidence that the investments they make today will be secure and supported in the future. LTO tape technology has the support of some of the world’s largest storage companies - HPE, IBM, Quantum, Fuji, Sony, Oracle and Dell/EMC - and has a proven track record of delivering solutions that meet the challenges of almost unconstrained data growth.

“Iron oxide in mag tape. it sticks to polyurethane in a binder”

I was also pretty impressed by the degree of accuracy in summarising what LTO tapes are actually made of. Particulate magnetic media like LTO Ultrium does indeed incorporate a binder system to hold the magnetic particles in place and bond them to a polyethylene naphthalate substrate (not polyurethane but on the right lines).

Elliot talks about the tapes being made from “iron oxide”, which is kind of close to reality except that the particles themselves are in a pigment that is coated over the substrate. Until LTO-6, all LTO data cartridges were manufactured using advanced Metal Particle or Ferric Oxide technology. Over 275 million MP data cartridges were shipped in that time.

Mr Robot BaFe and MP.jpg

But LTO-6 also saw the first use of Barium Ferrite (BaFe) particles in the Ultrium format and from LTO-7 onwards, Barium Ferrite (or some other advanced particle technology) will be used exclusively. Although the BaFe media is manufactured in a similar way to MP tape, with magnetic particles suspended in a coating, BaFe particles are smaller in size than MP particles. That means they have superior magnetic potential which becomes significant as the areal density – and hence the capacity – of the media increases. Simply put, you can’t achieve the higher capacities required of LTO-7, let alone LTO-9, using iron or ferric oxide.

Or as Scotty might have said if this were his show, “You canna’ change the laws of physics!”

“If HVAC conditions surpass the ceiling 95 degrees, polyurethane adhesive mollifies and tape data is unreadable.”

It was all going so well but at this point, I’m afraid the part of my brain that just loves a good cliffhanger collided head on with my inner nerd.

Theoretically, the plan sounded good. For tape data storage to be successful, it’s important the magnetic properties of the particles are maintained for the life of the product. Tape drives write and read data by using an electromagnetic signal to alter the position of the particles. Any deterioration in the remanence (i.e. the ability of the magnetic particles to retain a magnetic field) can lead to impaired performance and possible data loss.

The tape substrate (what Elliot called the ‘polyurethane adhesive’) is used to support the magnetic pigment containing the particles and determines the mechanical characteristics of the tape. Exposure to high temperature variation might cause dimensional changes, through expansion and contraction, and lead to tape tracking issues. If the binder and coating is compromised - through softening, becoming brittle, loss of cohesiveness, or loss of lubrication - a tape may indeed become unusable.

But much as I was rooting for Elliot and his motley crew of hackers to break into the impregnable (or not so impregnable) Mr Robot Header.jpgSteel Mountain vault, part of me knew that even if they did, their day would never have ended well in the real world.

The reason for this is simple. 95° F, although pretty uncomfortable in the sauna, is much too low to make LTO cartridges break sweat, let alone melt into a pile of electromagnetic sludge.

(It’s the same as when those zombies who are generally known as the ‘walking dead’ turn into a combination of Usain Bolt and Rudolf Nureyev whenever things goes really quiet. It makes for great telly but you know it couldn’t happen).

HPE Extreme testing for LTO media. Hollywood proof!

Why am I so sure? Because HPE tests its LTO cartridges to extremes to make sure they can survive the most demanding and challenging conditions. A key component of the unique HPE brand specification, which goes far beyond industry standards in this area, is environmental interchange. Data is continuously written to, and read from the tapes for 24 hours in multiple environments, ranging from 50° F / 10° C at 80% relative humidity (RH), right up to (and here’s the spoiler, I’m afraid) 113° F / 45° C and 24% RH.

Upbeat suspenseful music, stand down!

Furthermore, it’s proven that storing tapes at a constant environment of 140° F / 60° C, 90% RH for a week is approximately equivalent to storing the same tapes at 77° F / 25° C, 60% RH for a period of 4 years.

HPE has performed accelerate ageing tests, where LTO Ultrium tapes are maintained at these elevated temperatures for eight weeks in order to simulate thirty years of archival storage. And after a couple of months of baking, the performance of these time travelling tapes was indistinguishable from brand new ones.

Sorry Elliot, but a mere 95° F isn’t remotely going to cut it if you only have until 9 am tomorrow morning to bring down Evil Corp. You would probably need to be looking at temperatures heading north of 140° F in a very short space of time to make the backup admin panic.

Bearing in mind that 134° F / 56° C is the hottest natural temperature ever recorded on earth, it might be more practical to try to burn Steel Mountain to the ground. Not because the cartridges would be destroyed in the blaze, more that the water from the sprinklers would have a better chance of ruining the tape than the heat. Even then, most impregnable vaults would probably use some kind of gaseous fire suppression system to avoid damaging the assets contained within - mixtures of carbon, fluorine and hydrogen are common.

I know, you pesky kids would probably have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that pedantic old guy.

Old, familiar, boring, dull, antiquated, unsexy and….formidably secure.

Tape may be venerable and familiar technology but its extreme durability, combined with the potential to be scaled almost without limits and stored offline make it an ideal solution for long term secure archiving. Although there were a few plot wrinkles, one of the things that stands out from this episode of Mr. Robot is that tapes in a secure offline vault are remarkably difficult to get at. You’d need a formidable knowledge of security systems, a great deal of nerve, some terrifying weaponry and a pretty high knowledge of chemistry to be successful.

I’m working on the pilot for Breaking Dead Robot Zombies (Riding Dragons) as we speak.

Happy holidays everyone!

Andew Dodd.jpg

Meet Around the StorageBlock blogger Andrew Dodd, Worldwide Marcom Manager, HPE Storage Supplies. @tapevine

About the Author

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Comments
yquest

Mr. Robot is oddly one of my favorite tv shows.  And this episode was particularly interesting surrounding destroying bacup tapes.  I thought it was very well done and enjoyed reading your critique and observations Andrew.  

Athos Gonzaga

Thank you for sharing the information, but I would like to know if it is possible to tell you the specifications of each type of LTO tape 4 and 5 ... etc for each type of temperature.
thank you.

Tapevine

You can view the operating and archival environment - temperature and humidity - requirements for LTO media in the LTO media Quick Specs here - https://www.hpe.com/h20195/v2/gethtml.aspx?docname=c04154430.  Owing to the similarity of magnetic media construction, they are fundamentally the same for all types of LTO media.  There is no difference based on generation in the usage and storage recommendations.  

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