Tape options expand; midrange getting crowded

Posted on May 01, 1998

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Tape options expand; midrange getting crowded

By Dave Simpson

Last month, a number of announcements from prominent tape drive manufacturers muddied the waters in the midrange segment. The result: You`ll have a lot more tape technology options within the next year or so, further confusing an already confusing decision.

The triumvirate of Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Seagate Technology announced specs for their much-anticipated Linear Tape-Open (LTO) format, a new technology that is not compatible with any of the existing tape formats. Within a week of that announcement, Overland Data and Tandberg Data announced a technology swap encompassing Overland`s VR2 technology and Tandberg`s SLR/MLR drives. Not to be undone, Quantum announced its Super DLTape, the successor to its popular DLT tape format. All of the announcements came amid rumblings, rumors, and road maps from other tape heavyweights such as Exabyte, Sony, and Storage Technology regarding plans for their next generations of tape technologies.

The emerging tape formats probably won`t have much affect on your near-term acquisition plans: None of the new technologies are expected until well into next year and, given the track record of the tape drive industry, some of them probably won`t make their way to end users until the year 2000.

"All of these proposals are competitive thrusts to either gain or protect market share," says Ray Freeman, president of Freeman Associates, a market research firm in Santa Barbara, CA. "However, they`re just technology announcements so far, and users will have to wait and see what the actual products and prices are."

The LTO technology being jointly developed by HP, IBM, and Seagate will come in two implementations: Ultrium is a high-capacity single-reel unit that offers a capacity of 100GB per cartridge, and Accelis is a fast-access, dual-reel implementation that the companies claim can provide data retrieval in less than 10 seconds. Accelis cartridges load in the middle of the tape to minimize access time. (Note: All capacities and transfer rates in this article assume native, or uncompressed, mode. Data compression on average doubles capacity and transfer rate.)

The Accelis cartridge is very similar to IBM`s Magstar MP 3570 cartridges, and the Ultrium cartridge is similar to DLT cartridges, which should make it relatively easy for library manufacturers to adapt their robotics mechanisms to accommodate the new devices. (For details on LTO, visit www.lto-technology.com.)

While adhering to the same set of specs, the three vendors are expected to compete with each other by offering different performance characteristics at different price points. For example, the Accelis spec allows for a range of transfer rates--10MBps to 20MBps.

Accelis is expected to debut with capacities of up to 25GB per cartridge. A four-generation road map projects capacities of 200GB. Ultrium is expected to debut at 100GB per drive, with a road map calling for single-cartridge capacities of up to 800GB. The initial Ultrium drive will be able to handle cartridges in a variety of capacities (10/30/50/100GB).

Sharon Stone, business development manager at IBM, predicts that products based on LTO will hit the market in 12 to 18 months. Analysts expect the drives to compete with the full gamut of midrange tape technologies, including Quantum`s DLT, Sony`s Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT), Exabyte`s 8mm Mammoth and, to a lesser degree, with Tandberg`s Single-channel Linear Recording (SLR) and Multi-channel Linear Recording (MLR). LTO tape drives are not expected to compete with desktop formats such as Quarter-Inch Cartridge (QIC) and Digital Audio Tape (DAT).

"There`s a spot for LTO at the upper end of the tape market, because there`s a real push to get entire databases on one cartridge, and the backup windows are shrinking," says Bob Amatruda, a senior analyst at International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, MA.

Overland and Tandberg

Meanwhile, Overland and Tandberg last month announced a cross-licensing agreement under which Overland will become a second source for Tandberg`s SLR and MLR drives, and Tandberg will incorporate Overland`s VR2 ("VR squared") technology in its SLR/MLR drives. VR2 (Variable Rate Randomizer) is an advanced data encoding technology that promises to provide a 1.5x to 2x increase in the capacity and transfer rate of any linear tape device, such as Tandberg`s SLR and MLR. VR2 technology is also applicable to other linear recording technologies, such as Travan, DLT, Magstar and, for that matter, LTO, although no licensing agreements have been announced other than the Tandberg deal.

According to Steve Richardson, Overland`s vice president of marketing, Tandberg will deliver VR2-enabled SLR/MLR drives in the first quarter of next year, and SLR/MLR drives from Overland will go into production in the second half of next year.

Richardson says that the quarter-inch SLR/MLR technology, even with VR2, will be positioned below the half-inch LTO technology in both price and performance. For example, Tandberg plans to implement VR2 first on the MLR5 drive, which is due in the first quarter of next year at 40GB per cartridge and a transfer rate of 5MBps. Even with improvements from adding VR2, those performance specifications still fall short of the LTO specs. Richardson predicts that SLR/MLR with VR2 will compete more directly with 8mm and 4mm DAT tape drives.

Tandberg and Overland officials hope that the combination of VR2 with SLR/MLR, together with the availability of a second source, will encourage more vendors to OEM SLR/MLR drives. Currently, SLR/MLR resellers include Compaq, Fujitsu, IBM, ICL, Sun, and Siemens. "The Overland/Tandberg deal will certainly extend the active product life of SLR/MLR, and should make it more appealing to users and OEMs," says Freeman.

Also last month, Quantum provided details for its next generation of DLT technology. Called Super DLTape, the new format will initially deliver 100GB of capacity and a transfer rate of 10MBps. Quantum officials sketched a road map that would lead to 500GB per cartridge and a transfer rate of 40MBps.

According to Peter van Cuylenburg, president of Quantum`s Specialty Storage Products Group, a prototype of Super DLTape will be demonstrated at the Fall Comdex show, with final production scheduled for mid-1999. The new devices will be backward-compatible with DLT4000 and DLT7000. Without announcing specific pricing, van Cuylenburg indicated that Super DLTape will cost around ten cents per GB.

Van Cuylenburg attributes the Super DLTape capacity/performance improvements to four technologies: a pivoting optical servo system, advanced metal powder media, magneto-resistive cluster heads, and enhanced partial response channel technology, which, like Overland`s VR2, is a variant of PRML technology. PRML (partial response maximum likelihood) is widely used in the hard disk drive industry.

Prior to Quantum`s Super DLTape announcement, the company was regarded as a potential licensee of VR2, although that now seems unlikely. "There are several very comparable channel, compression, and coding schemes for tape drives, and there isn`t one that offers any distinct advantages over any other ones," van Cuylenburg contends. "We`ll be applying our own technology."

Commenting on the HP/IBM/Seagate LTO technology, with which Super DLTape is expected to compete, van Cuylenburg says that, "What end users hate more than anything else is a change in tape format."

Clearly, the battle lines are being drawn, and your tape options will expand significantly within the next year or two. "These moves are positive because tape vendors are making faster moves forward than has been the case in the past, and that`s good news for users," says Freeman. His advice: Wait until actual products and prices appear before you change your tape acquisition strategy.


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