From Tape Backup to Cloud: Evolution of Iron Mountain

MAY 15TH, 2018

Tape backup has been around for a long time. Tape data storage is an archive, which is long-term storage of inactive or low-activity data retained for future use. Even though it's prominent in the archive world, the demise of tape has been an annual prediction since the cloud pushed its way onto the scene. Taking a closer look reveals that a more complex transformation is taking over one of the core business blocks of IT backup solutions. So how does a company rooted in archiving physical tapes inside a secure facility transition to a company that uses the cloud to expand their services? This week we will look at how Iron Mountain is embracing the cloud in addition to running a traditional archival and document management service.


Iron Mountain has been managing the data backup, recovery services, and records management for more than 220,000 customers since 1951. Over the years, they have adapted their services to meet drastically changing data structures and formats.

Overview of Iron Mountain

A businessman named Herman Knaust started Iron Mountain by offering underground storage to New York banks who needed to store microfilm copies of deposit records and other financial transactions. Over the next two decades, tape backup became increasingly prevalent among Fortune 500 customers. Iron Mountain expanded their facilities and services to meet this need. Over the past 15 years, Iron Mountain has made many acquisitions that have helped it maintain its position as a leader in document management including the $2.2 billion purchase of Recall Holdings in 2016. In the same year, Fortune magazine listed Iron Mountain at number 720 on its list of largest 1000 public companies in the United States. Today, Iron Mountain maintains underground storage facilities across the world along with hundreds of above-ground facilities. The company remains tight-lipped about these locations due to the nature of their business and the fact they store some high-profile items such the master recordings of Frank Sinatra along with the Corbis photos collections owned by Bill Gates.

Increasing Pressure from the Cloud

Iron Mountain built a business of storing data that did not need to be frequently accessed if at all. Tape provides a low-cost way to store lots of data. When the cloud came along, it cast a shadow on a few of the significant disadvantages of Iron Mountain’s business, specifically the difficulty of accessing the data and the fragility of the physical tapes. These two issues happen to be two of the advantages of cloud-based solutions. In a recent survey done by IDG Research, results showed that 79% of respondents are likely to move some legacy tape data to the cloud. The respondents saw the cloud as a better solution in categories such as scalability, efficiency, data availability on demand, and cost savings. Iron Mountain understood the market was shifting, and cloud adoption was here to stay. They would have to adapt to the changing landscape, and they did so with two big announcements:

  • Unveiled new Iron Cloud Storage Service – This gives Iron Mountain the opportunity to offer a lot of cloud storage services that include data replication and data tiering. Iron Cloud will further expand to offer end-to-end disaster recovery, compliance, and data analytics.
  • Acquired IO Data Center’s US Operations – Iron Mountain paid $1.3 billion to help build out its expanding cloud services and lucrative co-location facility market. The big prize in the purchase are the four state-of-the-art data centers located in Arizona, New Jersey, and Ohio.

Addressing Cloud Disadvantages

Iron Mountain is in a unique position to address the disadvantages that come with the cloud due to their roots in storing large amounts of data. Moving enormous amounts of data over the internet is time-consuming from both a backup and restore perspective. Fiber connections and edge devices help mitigate some of the pain, but not all.


AWS has developed the Snowmobile and the Snowball to move exabytes and petabytes of data respectively. Snowmobile is a secured 45-foot long "High Cube" shipping container data truck with up to 100PB storage capacity. Snowball Amazon uses 2-day shipping by UPS for Snowball. Iron Mountain already has the infrastructure in place to offer a service like this, potentially being able to create their own "IronMobile" and "IronBall". The acquisition of four more large data centers also allows Iron Mountain to offer a hybrid cloud and colocation solution. All the customer must do is provide their hardware, and Iron Mountain can provide space at one of their data centers along with any cloud services for either short or long-term deployments.


Iron Mountain is merely one example on how this transformation of IT is changing and challenging tape data storage solutions. Even though the cloud has some cost and time advantages, it comes with its own challenges, from data protection concerns to compliance. Iron Mountain is still in the early phases of becoming a major player in cloud computing, but they understand the shift that is happening in IT and data storage. As they are moving into the cloud, companies who dominate the cloud space are trying to break into a more tangible storage solution. This shows while both storage solutions have benefits, along with challenges, it is going to take a hybrid data storage solution to truly gain the best of both worlds. Companies like Iron Mountain, Google, and Amazon are facing the ultimate challenge right now, which is finding the right balance of cloud and physical data storage.

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