RFID in the Tape Room and a History of Tracking Tapes

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by Alan T. McGaffin 

Tape has been used for backup of data since the ‘60’s, starting with 9 track, reel to reel tape.  Tape became easier to use when tape was converted to cartridges, such as the 3480.  A color code and barcode was put on the cartridge originally for Storage Retriever units to read the barcode on the cartridge so the robotic arm could select and retrieve, then replace the cartridge after use.  After more than 30 years, technology has advanced tremendously and this same Color Coded / Storage Media Barcode Label is still in use today on even the latest cartridges, the LTO-6.

In the beginning, in order to keep track of which tapes were put in containers and sent to offsite storage for backup rotation procedures, tape numbers were manually written down and logged.  When the tapes were returned, they were checked back in from the list and marked with a check and the date.  This manual process was labor intensive and slow, with human errors at several stages during the entire backup rotation process.

Using Barcodes to track tapes as they leave and return from offsite storage.

PC’s in the early 80’s enabled programs to be written which could track and log the contents of the containers and check the tapes Out and back In.  Barcode readers were adapted to read the barcodes on the tapes, which made logging the tapes much faster and the computer program automatically recorded what was leaving for storage and what was coming back.  For those early adopters, using the barcodes for tracking proved to be beneficial and made the entire Disaster Recovery process more efficient.  It still took over two decades for technology to catch up and the cost of barcode scanners and programs to become more cost effective and with that, today, a far majority of tapes are tracked with barcodes. 

The barcodes efficiency was compared against manual methods and the ROI was easy to calculate, due to being able to process more tapes per minute and log the disaster recovery process more accurately.  Even with barcodes, having to open the storage case and scan each tape is labor intensive and is possible to skip a tape with manually scanning the barcodes.  With the Big Data Explosion and the recent trends of using tape to compliment disk backup, more tape is being used and more tape is being sent off site for backup or long time archival.  Even a spokesperson for the Library of Congress said, “we are continuously evaluating and strengthening our storage architecture to provide cost-effective tiered storage, so we manage requirements for different types of content and usage.  We use both disk and tape storage, ….”

There is a better way with Radio Frequency Identification, better known as RFID.

RFID is not new, but recent technology advances have made it more affordable and practical.  RFID early adopters may not have realized the benefits they were promised, mainly because of unrealistic expectations or poor implementations by the companies which promoted and sold them.  An example is that some adopters were sold RFID Tape Labels, promised of heightened security of the tapes by automatically knowing which tapes have left the tape room.   As they found out, RFIDUHF, is not realistic for security, because there are too many ways to circumvent or miss the signals at a designated fixed door reader.  But, that is not to say, that fixed readers at doorways or areas don’t work, they just have to be properly configured.  So, RFID, if implemented properly and expectations properly explained, can be a tremendous asset and improvement to the tape room over using just barcodes.

Now is the best time to start or continue using RFID Labels to track your tapes, records and IT assets.  Even if you are not ready to start tracking your tapes, go ahead and buy your labels with the RFID chips in them.

What is RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)?  RFID is an identification technology which uses Radio Frequency signals to transmit and receive a unique Identification Number wirelessly from an RFID inlay or chip to a receiving RFID Reader.

There are 2 types of RFID – Active or Passive.

Active RFID Tags have an imbedded battery which transmits its signal up to hundreds of feet. 

Passive RFID Tags have no battery and are energized or powered by the Reader, which transmits a signal which is received by the chips antenna, which energizes the microchip.  This chip has the unique ID number and returns that ID number to the Reader.  An example is that the Tape or Asset Barcode 6 digit number is written to the chip, so that when read by the reader, it transmits the actual Barcode number back to the reader. You can think of RFID, in this case, as an invisible barcode.  You don’t have to see it and it can be inside the closed storage case when you “read” it.  The RFID chips have advanced so that they are so small, there is no longer a bump in the label to alter printing.  

Since RFID passive tags need to be activated by a reader in order to access the information stored on them, the distance from which a tag can be read depends on a number of factors, including the size of the tag antenna and the amount of power it can draw from the tag reader. Today’s RFID tags can be miniaturized to a great degree, however, the smaller the tag’s antenna, the lower its range, so the smallest tags can only be read at a very short distance.

Passive RFID applications are everywhere.

As the cost of mass-producing modern RFID passive tags becomes progressively cheaper, use of them has become increasingly common. Inventory items, road tolls, logistics, animal tracking, pass ports, weapons tracking, asset tracking, and tape tracking are just some of the current applications of RFID passive tags.   RFID tags are much less expensive and the readers are more sophisticated and more economical, both portable and fixed readers.  Technology will continue to advance and improve as it evolves and with this, RFID equipment and tags will continue to become smaller and better, plus less expensive. 

What are the benefits from using RFID vs. Barcodes to track my tapes?

  • Logging tapes In or Out is 10 times faster
  • Finding tapes is easier – no need to open case to visually find tape..
  • Ability to audit or identify tape case contents, without breaking the seal on the tape case.
  • RFID can be put in Case to also track tape location at all times. 
  • Active tags can be put in your cases or containers to track them real time as they move or if they leave the premises. 
  • A locked case, with Active Technology to know if the case was opened, with time and date and the Real Time Tracking is a better solution for Security.
  • Better accuracy with auto RFID reader – no skipped tapes
  • No need to pull Barcode Scanner trigger for each tape…RFID scanner is auto read
  • With RFID, complete physical inventory is easier and 10 times faster or more and being able to conduct a complete physical inventory of all your stored tapes in a timely manner, allows for full compliance with new Audit and compliance regulations, such as Sarbanes-Oxley.  To compare, with barcodes, 100% inventories is too time consuming.

Is RFID affordable now?  The answer is yes.  Some of the larger label producing companies still charge a huge premium of over a dollar or even 2 dollars each for their RFID labels, claiming that their labels are superior.  That may have been true in the 80’s and 90’s (non-RFID), and with exclusive patents,  but the truth is that with today’s advances in technology, distribution and printing methods and no patents, competition is driving down the prices for superior labels.  The same RFID tags and label material used by DATAWARE is the same used by the DOD and most Health care companies to track their various items.  So, I ask you to relook at RFID from DATAWARE and see just how economical RFID can be.

Business case for using RFID Barcode Media Labels to track your Media Tapes.

Sample case:  400 tapes – 20 cases of 20 tapes each.

                        Barcode           RFID                

Check Out       1 hour              5 minutes       

Check In          1 hour              5 minutes

Finding Tape   ?                      Minutes

Complete Inv.  ?                      10 time faster

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