"A tape cartridge itself becomes a gigantic USB drive, if you will," IBM's Tripathi said.
That capability can also be expanded to an entire library of data with a system such as IBM's LTFS Library Edition. It will collect the metadata from all the tapes so IT departments can search for and retrieve an individual file from within an entire library, Tripathi said.
LTFS is now used by most major tape vendors, so products of different brands can work together. The backers of NTFS are now seeking to make it a formal standard of the Storage Networking Industry Association, a step that may be completed next year.
Tape is also growing more space efficient, with a standard cartridge based on the new LTO-6 specification holding 2.5TB of data without compression or 6.25TB with compression.
LTO-6 drives can transfer data at 400MB per second. Tape falls behind on speed mainly when it comes to seeking out many small, separate files, said Henry Baltazar, an analyst at The 451 Group.
Tape Not Slow When It Matters
"Tape is not slow for things that are big," he said. For accessing a single large file such as a video, it's competitive with disk, he said.
Even the robots that find tapes in a library and place them in a drive are faster than they might seem. It typically takes about 30 to 40 seconds to retrieve a tape and get it running, according to IBM.
Enterprises that don't want to deal with tape themselves may now take advantage of it indirectly. Cloud service providers offer value by carrying out IT tasks at a larger scale than their customers can achieve, which gives them a cost advantage. When it comes to storage, the most economical way of doing that may be tape.
"Just because you don't want to deal with tape ... doesn't absolve you of the business requirements of holding your data for five years or seven years," ESG's Buffington says. "Your data almost inevitably is going to still live on tape, before it's over."
While cutting-edge cloud companies may not say they're using tape, it's part of the picture for many of them, he said. For example, the Amazon Glacier service from Amazon Web Services is probably based on tape, analysts say. Glacier is designed for infrequently accessed data and typically delivers information in three to five hours, according to the company. AWS would not confirm that the service uses tape.
Tape also has a role to play in big-data analysis, where crunching large amounts of information from different sources can yield new insights. Even though those operations typically use HDDs for fast access, the data being processed may well come out of long-term tape storage, Baltazar said.
[Related: Strategic Guide to Big Data Analytics]