Windows can only see files in RAM, flash memory, or on rotating media. So far so obvious. But is it, obvious I mean? Windows NT came along with the promise of a hardware abstraction layer. Windows also has its plug and play notion. With this and USB the effects are both simple and profound.

I can attach any printer to a Windows system. Applications 'talk' to it with ease.

I can attach any disk drive or array to a Windows system. It's simple and straightforward for aplications to access files and folders on the drives.

Ditto CD and DVD drives. Ditto scanners, courtesy of the TWAIN interface. Ditto most devices courtesy of USB.

But not ditto tapes. There doesn't appear to be a tape abstraction layer. Windows and Windows applications can't access files and folders on a tape drive. Well, obviously, say the Windows literati; tape isn't a random access device, it's sequential access.

Because of this Windows, and other operating systems, absolve themselves of responsibility for protecting their users' data. It's left to third parties, called backup software vendors on the one hand, and tape drive vendors on the other. If I want to protect my data I have to choose a backup software vendor and a tape drive/device vendor. Neither Microsoft nor Linux/Unix will have intrinsic support or simple and easy to use facilities integrated with the operating system, to do this.

Why not? I mean, really, why not? Are there blinkers over the O/S vendors' eyes?

Veritas, Legato, Arkeia, Dantz, CA and many other suppliers have managed the trick of having an on-disk catalogue of files held on tape catrridges so that users or IT staff can identify backed-up files and restore them from. Maxtor, and now Seagate and others, have one-click backup software writing files to a USB-connected external disk. It is simple, it is easy and Microsoft doesn't provide the software to do it.

I'm not complaining. I'm just curious as to why not. Microsoft is not alone. Unix/Linux doesn't do it either. But Symantec/Veritas, EMC/Legato and others have built global businesses and made millions of corporate profits from providing data protection software. Why not the operating system vendors?

Will it carry on like this?
No, it wont, not necessarily. Because random access data protection devices are getting better. Businesses protecting data by burning CDs, and now DVDs, know this. Each jump in capacity means burning an optical disc becomes more attractive, when compared to the hassle and burden of buying and operating backup software, tape devices, and cartridges.

Now disc-to-disk backup is becoming more and more popular. And Microsoft has taken a lead amongst operating system vendors by proving disk-to-disk backup software in the form of DPM - Data Protection Manager. It is providing a SDK so backup software developers can take the full file and incremental changes held in a SQL store on the DPM server and back them up to tape.

It is as if, as soon as a method came along for providing data protection on disk, the blinkers fell off Microsoft's eyes - oh, we 'are' in the data protection business - and it opportunistically produced a product. Neat. It's a nice-looking product too.

DPM provides a much easier backup and restore process for users. They see backed-up files on the DPM server as normal files in normal folders and can do a drag and drop restore. Simple, convenient, easy - classic Microsoft. So it's not that Microsoft doesn't think data protection isn't its business. No, it's rather that Microsoft just doesn't do tape.

So, once those files on the DPM server are archived off to tape they disappear from Microsoft's vision and the backup software vendor is responsible for presenting a list of tape contents and for providing restore facilities. Once again we see the random access vs sequential access split. And it is no longer simple, convenient and easy for users.

This is like having data protection schizophrenia. On the disk side it's all sweetness and light. On the tape side the dark forces take over. Because Microsoft isn't in the long-term data protection business.

Is this disk:tape divide doomed to afflict us forever?

Not necessarily
Is there light at the end of his dismal disk:tape divide tunnel? May be, maybe so. A tape cartridge can hold hundreds of gigabytes of data. A CD can hold 700MB or so. No competition for tape. A DVD (dual-layer) can hold around 8GB. Still no competition. But a holographic disk can hold - wait for it - 300GB. That's the promise, and a terabyte plus capacity is on the technology's road map according to InPhase.

This rather changes the tape-disk balance, don't you think?

Holographic disks are just extremely high-capacity optical disks. They spin. They are random access, and Microsoft does spinning random access media. They can be taken out of their drives and stored in a vault. If holographic storage technology comes good then the disks will be used to store archive data. No question. And, if one gets plugged into a USB port then standard Windows will 'see' it. No question.

So here's a prediction. If, or when, holographic disks arrive with a 300 gig plus capacity then Microsoft will realise it is, after all, in the long-term data protection business and DPM, or whatever it is called by then, will take on the back-end, archival storage role too.

And then businesses large and small may question why they are paying a data protection tax in terms of owning and operating expensive and hard to use and unreliable backup and restore software? And also in owning and managing autoloaders and tape libraries and tens, hundreds, even thousands of bar-coded tape cartridges? Dispense with this sequential access-based technology and come back to random access. You know it makes sense.

And, get this, there's not a thing the backup software and tape hardware vendors can do about it. They have made a truly excellent living out of Microsoft's and Unix/Linux' aberration that sequential access media is just not done by operating systems.

But none of us really want their products. We want what they can do, true. But, just like Black & Decker drills, we don't want drills, we want holes. So as soon as what we really want, which is data protection and restoration, can be done much, much more simply, and by standard software, then we'll simply jump off the good ship tape and say a heartfelt farewell.

Then, like the Maria Celeste, she'll sail the deserted oceans of sequential access, occasionally bumping into the floating derelicts that used to be punched cards and paper tape, wandering where the good times went.

And another thing
Is Microsoft in the information life cycle management business? Is Unix? Is Linux? If not, why not? Isn't ILM middleware? Isn't Microsoft really well-placed to provide ILM facilities? No? More blinkers perhaps.