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Volume 32, Issue 4

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Wednesday, 31 October 2018 18:51

From Punch Cards to Uninterrupted Access – The Evolution of Computer Systems Backup


Business technology has evolved into the dynamic, web-based, data-driven systems we take for granted today. With digital transformation comes the need for speed, performance and an expectation of no downtime, no data loss and no interruption. In this fast-paced environment, backup capabilities have often struggled to keep up.

We all know that history can be cyclical, so to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and to fully appreciate where backup technologies are today and where they’re headed, it’s important to understand how they’ve evolved (or not) over the years. For decades, data backup technologies were more or less static. Backup applications copied files to punch cards, tape, CDs or disks according to a predetermined schedule, and there really wasn't much more to it. Below is a brief timeline of these static backup methods.

Punch Cards

In the 1950s during the first generation of computing, technology professionals used punch cards to input and externally store data. They made additional copies of the cards and saved them in boxes offsite to restore data in the event of loss, creating the first data storage devices for backup. Punch cards, while effective at the time, were limited in capacity and required a great deal of time for processing.

Magnetic Tapes

By the 1960s, more capable and more efficient magnetic tape became the go-to backup solution. Since one roll of magnetic tape could store as much data as 10,000 punch cards, this option quickly became the most popular way of storing computer data, and continued to be until the mid 1980s. Tape backups also became widespread due to tape drives’ reliability, scalability and low cost. All these advantages make tape backup an attractive solution, even today.

Hard Drives

Until 1980, hard drives’ large size and limited capacity made them less than ideal for backups. But by the early 1990s they became a real alternative for tape backups. Today, tape and disk solutions still vie for much of the backup market share.

Floppy Disks

When the first floppy disk was introduced in 1969, it was read-only and could store only 80kB of data. Four years later, rewritable disks could store 256kB of data, and by the late 1990s, a 3-inch disk could store 250 MB of data. Floppy disk backup was never as prevalent as tape backup, but since the disks were cheap and portable, they appealed to consumers and small businesses.

CDs and DVDs

Due to high capacity, compact discs started becoming popular in the 1980s. By the 1990s when they’re prices fell dramatically and they became ubiquitous in almost every computer, CDs replaced floppy disks and became an extremely popular option for backup. The introduction of DVDs with even more capacity has only strengthened this trend.

In an effort to evolve from these static backup methods, for the last few decades the offsite backup of virtual machines has been an integral part of a company’s resilience strategy. Having a tertiary copy of data and applications stored offsite ensures that businesses can recover something no matter what happens to the production environment. But this approach still relies on tape and other backup media, bringing with it some limitations. 

The importance of backup services has evolved dramatically in the past few years. Since the late 1990s, companies across the world have accelerated their use of internet-based online backup services. Backing up via network or internet to a remote location can protect against some worst-case scenarios, such as natural disasters or cyber attacks.

Recent years have seen something of a backup and disaster recovery renaissance. According to a Global Forecast about the Data Backup and Recovery market by PRNewswire, published in Dec, 2017, the backup and recovery market is expected to grow from $7.13 billion in 2017 to $11.59 billion by 2022.

Organizational and end user expectations continue to escalate in today’s constantly connected society, while IT teams must manage increasingly complex environments, stricter regulations, more frequent natural disasters and escalating cybersecurity treats. This puts pressure on IT to simplify systems while still delivering continuous availability, growth and innovation. However, new backup technologies such as continuous data protection, instant recovery and data reduction have completely changed the way we protect our data from loss.

These technologies along with modern multi-cloud and virtualization strategies are shifting the way we look at backup, from an static, antiquated safeguard to a vital, active part of an IT strategy. When the history of backup is told 20 years from now, it will most likely be discussed in more of a nostalgic way. As backup technologies continue to evolve as core facets of everyday IT operations in an “always-on” world, it’s easy to envision a time when the term “backup” itself is wiped from the IT vernacular, fondly and quaintly remembered along with punch cards.

Seymour caroline♦♦♦

Caroline Seymour is a product marketing director for Zerto.