Finding Your Way through the Tape Maze

Posted on October 01, 1998

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Finding Your Way through the Tape Maze

DLT, AIT, LTO, SLR, NCTP--the list goes on. There`s something out there for everyone.

By Heidi Biggar

By this time next year, more than a half-dozen new tape formats will be shipping in volume, adding to the wide array of technologies already on the market. With 18GB to 100GB of capacity and transfer rates from 6MBps to 24MBps, the new drives are targeted at traditional tape applications such as disk backup, archival, and data interchange, and for newer applications such as hierarchical storage management, remote backup, and network storage.

On the docket are three second-generation formats (Sony`s AIT-2 and DTF-2, and Exabyte`s Mammoth-2); one next-generation quarter-inch drive (Tandberg`s recently renamed SLR100); a three-generation family of DLT drives from Quantum; and four "first-of-its-kind" drives (Ultrium and Accelis from HP, IBM, and Seagate; NCTP from Philips; and 9840 from StorageTek). Meanwhile, product announcements from startups OnStream (Longmont, CO) and Ecrix (Boulder, CO) are imminent, and fourth-generation 4mm drives are expected to ship in volume late next year.

With these new options, the tape market is about to become even more confusing for users and integrators alike. As Freeman Associates, an industry analyst firm in Santa Barbara, CA, puts it in its recently released 1998 Compact Tape Outlook report: "As industry participants jockey for competitive position, the casual observer is confronted with a confusing stream of claims and counterclaims."

The intent of this article is to help steer users and integrators through the tape maze to technologies that best match their performance, price, and application requirements.

Head-to-Head Competition

Two of the most talked about new technologies are SuperDLT (or SDLT) and Ultrium. SuperDLT is the first of a new family of DLT drives from Quantum. Ultrium is one of two new tape formats based on the linear tape open (LTO) architecture recently announced by HP, IBM, and Seagate. Though pricing has not been announced for either drive, Ultrium is expected to go head to head with SuperDLT in the midrange arena--a billion-dollar market currently dominated by DLT. Both products are slated for availability in mid-1999.

SuperDLT and Ultrium will both debut with a maximum of 100GB of capacity and at least a 10MBps transfer rate, though Ultrium will be available in lower-capacity configurations and with a higher 20MBps transfer rate. (Note: All figures are native unless otherwise indicated.) SuperDLT is expected to scale a minimum of three generations, topping out with a capacity of 500GB and a speed of 40MBps. Backward read/write compatible with DLT4000 and DLT7000, SuperDLT will leverage DLT`s installed base of nearly one million drives.

To reach this level of capacity and performance, Quantum integrated four new technologies into the existing DLT architecture: a pivoting optical servo, advanced metal powder (AMP) media, a cluster of magneto-resistive (MR) heads, and an enhanced partial response (EPR) channel. All technologies will be implemented in at least the next two generations of SuperDLT. The optical servo opens up the entire media surface for data storage and eliminates the possibility of erasing servo information because the tracks are embedded on the back of the AMP media. Co-developed by Lucent Technologies and Quantum, the EPR channel is a partial response maximum likelihood (PRML) implementation for nonlinear tape technologies and is similar in concept to Overland Data`s VR2 (variable rate randomizer) technology. Quantum has opted to use an MR-head cluster configuration for optimum performance at a low cost point.

With SuperDLT, Quantum extends its reach into the midrange market. A manufacturing license and marketing agreement signed between Quantum and Tandberg Data last month is also expected to deepen DLT`s market penetration, especially in Europe.

Meanwhile, with an eye toward simplifying tape users` choices in the enterprise and network storage markets, HP, Seagate, and IBM continue to work on LTO, a "standard" that ironically includes two formats. Accelis targets applications for which fast access and data retrieval is essential; Ultrium, high-capacity backup and retrieval.

Four generations of Ultrium drives are on the boards. Says Kevin Reardon, business line manager for IBM`s removable media storage solution division, "We developed an architecture that we thought would support four generations. Ultrium starts with 100GB and 10 to 20MBps transfer rates and goes up to 800GB and 60MBps. Every 18 to 24 months, we`re doubling capacity." Initially, four cartridge capacities (10GB, 30GB, 50GB, and 100GB) will be available. HP, Seagate, and IBM will each manufacture an Ultrium drive according to their own product specifications and positioning strategies.

Like DLT, Ultrium is a 5.25-inch full-height drive. Other features include a multi-channel servo and RLL encoding. Second-generation drives will incorporate PRML channels and MR heads.

IBM is positioning the technology as a solution for backup and streaming applications. According to Reardon, Ultrium is expected to be priced lower than 3590 and to come in at the workstation level and extend into high-end NT and low-end Unix server environments. Seagate is focusing on high-end automated markets and large data centers.

On the downside, Ultrium is a new technology without an installed base. "To make someone gravitate away from a technology such as DLT, you need to offer benefits on price or performance to make it enticing enough for them to move," says Bob Amatruda, a senior analyst at International Data Corporation, a research firm in Framingham, MA.

Clearly, there is potential market share to be taken from DLT, but that`s not likely to happen in the short term. "But other than the costs of developing the technology and manufacturing the drives," says Amatruda, "there`s really no downside." In fact, it may be a matter of now or never for some of the major drive manufacturers. "If they don`t do that [come up with a drive that competes with DLT]," continues Freeman`s Abraham, "they`re out in the long term." And "if Quantum slips, someone else can take market share," comments Fara Yale, senior analyst at Dataquest, a market research firm in San Jose, CA.

After initial skepticism about yet another tape drive for the midrange market--defined by IDC to include technologies capable of storing 10GB or more of uncompressed data with transfer rates of at least 1MBps and a street price of less than $5,000--LTO is building momentum and credibility. The LTO triumvirate has signed up Imation, Emtec, and Verbatim to develop media, and Fujitsu last month announced it will join HP, IBM, and Seagate to become a fourth licensed developer of Ultrium drives.

TK Answers with 9840; Sony, with DTF-2

Not to be excluded, Storage Technology late this year is expected to ship production volumes of the 9840, its answer to the recent flurry of activity in the tape market. With 20GB of capacity and a transfer rate of 10MBps, the new drive appears to be positioned against LTO Accelis (25GB of capacity with a 10MBps to 20MBps transfer rate). Like Accelis, 9840 is not backward compatible with existing technologies, though both drives feature a dual-hub cartridge design that is not only compatible with some existing library types, but also allows for fast data access (10 seconds for Accelis, 16 seconds for 9840).

The Accelis cartridge is mechanically identically to the 3570 (IBM`s Magstar MP) cartridge, while the 9840 cartridge is similar in form factor to the 3480/3490. "Accelis," says IBM`s Reardon, "is not directly backward compatible to the 3570, but the 3570 is an automation system product, so we`ll do the backward compatibility within the automation."

By designing the 9840 cartridge in the standard 3480/3490 form factor, StorageTek will be able to integrate this product into existing high-end Timberline and Redwood libraries and lower-end libraries in the DLT space. The plan, says Linda Higdon, director of nearline marketing at StorageTek, is to broaden StorageTek`s offerings so that they span the enterprise, from Unix and NT to mainframe and supercomputer environments. On the high end, continues Higdon, 9840 provides additional capacity; on the low end, needed performance.

Says IDC`s Amatruda: "They will do well with that technology in their own installed base. The challenge will be to sell it outside their installed base." Pricing is not yet available.

Meanwhile in the mid- to high-end arena, at Comdex next month Sony will introduce a follow-on DTF product and will announce a price cut for current DTF drives (GY2120) to the low $20,000s. Sony has spec`d the DTF-2 at 24MBps, with a capacity of--you guessed it--100GB. Its price (about $30,000) and performance position the drive alongside Redwood, 3590, and multiple-DLT library configurations. Target applications include post-production/video markets, oil/gas seismology, and network-attached storage. Full production volume are expected in the fall of 1999.

Other features include a swappable interface module for SCSI or Fibre Channel connection, fault-tolerant ports, and a zero-second load time for library configurations (a 128K chip--similar to AIT`s memory-in-cassette chip--will be available for drive implementations about a year later).

The DTF road map calls for a third-generation 200GB/24MBps product in 2001 and a 400GB to 500GB/48MBps drive in 2005.

NCTP for 3480/3490 Users

Another interesting product in the 20GB/10MBps area is NCTP (Next Compatible Tape Product) from Philips Laser Magnetic Storage. After about a two-year delay due to head and media issues, Philips shipped first units of the drive this spring. The company reports an installed base of about 200 drives.

What makes this technology unique is not its capacity (18GB) or transfer rate (10MBps/2.7MBps for 3480/3490), but its read compatibility with 3480/3490 technology. Says John Drollinger, director of marketing at Philips: "We`re after the users who have the old IBM standard--and lots of it--and don`t want to be forced to buy anything new right now." No other technology provides 3480/3490 users with an immediate migration path.

A line of NCTP autoloaders and libraries are also available, and Emass recently began integrating NCTP into its library products. Nonetheless, NCTP remains a niche product, albeit with a huge potential. "If you don`t have the old 3480/3490 tape," says Drollinger, "I`m not sure there`s a strong reason to go to NCTP." However, comments IDC`s Amatruda, "there will be quite a bit of legacy business. There`s tons of those cartridges out there."

At least one more generation of NCTP is on the boards, but the company is not sure whether that drive will be backward compatible with 3480/3490. It will, however, be compatible with first-generation products. The starting price for NCTP is $19,730.

8mm Keeps Pace

True to their word, Sony and Exabyte appear to be on course to deliver next-generation 8mm products early next year. Sony`s second-generation advanced intelligent tape (AIT) drive will offer 50GB of capacity and a 6MBps transfer rate. Longer tape media as well as a higher recording frequency, bit density, and drum speed enables the increase in capacity and performance. Like first-generation drives, AIT-2 also features memory-in-cassette, a 64Kbit memory chip built into the data cartridge. The chip stores the tape system`s log, search map, and other user-definable information and supports multiple partitions and multiple load points, allowing for an average access time of less than 20 seconds.

According John Woelburn, senior marketing product manager, Sony will list AIT-2 at $4,995, positioning it to fill a price gap between lower-cost DDS products and drives tagged above $5,000. Beta samples are expected this month, with full production in January. The media cartridge with MIC will run about $125.

With Mammoth-2, Exabyte boosts capacity to 70GB and transfer rates to 12MBps. The new drive incorporates a four-channel/eight-head scanner with a PRML implementation. Other enabling technologies include narrower tracks, longer AME tape, 2.5:1 ALDC compression, and improved heads. The drive is backward read compatible with previous generations of Mammoth drives.

As for positioning, Exabyte officials place Mammoth in PC, Unix, and enterprise server environments. "Today`s generation of products," says Steve Georgis, director of technology and business development at Exabyte, "will be perfect matches for NT for the next several years." Georgis goes on to say that the next crop of products (those with transfer rates in excess of 10MBps) will be well positioned for Unix/enterprise environments. Exabyte is looking at mid-1999 for product delivery.

While Exabyte appears to have bounced back from the initial beating it took from Quantum when Exabyte was a year late to market with Mammoth, Sony continues to struggle with AIT. "They haven`t had a major OEM step up to it and endorse the technology," says IDC`s Amatruda. "Its potential is very good, but it really hasn`t taken off."

Some of AIT`s lack of momentum, comments Bob Abraham of Freeman Associates, goes back to Sony`s failure to immediately talk about a growth path for AIT. At least one more generation of AIT is planned. Look for a 100GB, 12MBps drive in the 2000 time frame. This drive will feature a higher track density and four-channel recording with MR heads. A third-generation Mammoth product is also expected in 2000, incorporating multi-channel recording, PRML, higher rpms and track densities, and longer tape. In combination, these features will allow for 200GB of capacity and a 20MBps transfer rate. Says Georgis, Mammoth-3 is timed to match second-generation SuperDLT and LTO offerings.

IDC pegs Sony`s share of the overall 8mm market to be about 12%; Exabyte`s, about 79%. Current AIT OEMs include ADIC, ADDS, Compaq, Cybernetics, Emass, LaCie, MediaLogic, Micron, nStor, Procom, Qualstar, Rorke Data, and SpectraLogic,. Exabyte`s Mammoth roster includes Bull, Data General, DEC, Fujitsu, IBM (PC-server, RS-6000 UNIX, and AS/400 platforms), Intergraph, Micron, NCR, Siemens, Sun, Tektronix (broadcast market).

SLR Boosts Ante

Despite a less-than-optimistic outlook for the overall quarter-inch cartridge (QIC) tape market this year due to sluggish sales of minicartridge products on the desktop, the future of data cartridge technologies is comparatively bright, reports Freeman Associates in its 1998 Compact Tape Outook report. Freeman cites an aggressive schedule of product advances, the suitability of data cartridges for NT server environments, the emergence of supporting automation solutions, and the strategic alliance between Tandberg Data and Overland Data as factors contributing to the strength of this market segment.

Tandberg Data (Simi Valley, CA) will introduce SLR100 (formerly known as MLR5) in the first quarter of 1999 and a 100GB/12MBps follow-on product in early 2000. Tandberg is positioning the drives to take on 4mm DAT. This third-generation "scalable" linear recording (SLR) drive boosts capacity from 25GB to 50GB and transfer rates from 2MBps to 5MBps, using four MR heads instead of two, a wider MP+ (metal particle) tape, and VR2 technology licensed from Overland Data last April. Under the terms of the agreement, Overland Data obtains second-sourcing rights to manufacture SLR drives, though "any such plans would begin with MSLR5 [now SLR100] in the 1999/2000 time frame," says John Boyken, product marketing manager at Overland.

In addition to working with Tandberg, Overland is actively seeking other licensees for VR2. Target markets include Travan, QIC minicartridge, LTO, and MLR/SLR as well as automation products. A similar technology, co-developed by Quantum and Lucent, is being implemented into SuperDLT.

Meanwhile, a manufacturing license and marketing agreement announced last month between Tandberg and Quantum opens the door to another source of SLR drives. The agreement provides Quantum with the option to negotiate a license to manufacture SLR drives. (For details, see News).

Tandberg`s OEM line-up includes Acer, Compaq, Data General, Fujitsu, IBM, Lucent, NCR, and Sun.

Clearly, users are demanding more and faster data storage, as evidenced by this latest onset of tape technologies. To keep pace with hard-drive alternatives, look for product updates every 18 to 24 months and for ongoing industry consolidation as manufacturers of tape drives and libraries team up to offer solution-oriented product lines that scale the enterprise.

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DDS: Tried and True?

By all accounts it may be too soon to dismiss 4mm DAT as a viable technology for the future, or is it? With total unit shipments approaching 1.75 million this year, DAT continues to have a foothold in desktop and PC-server markets. First-generation DDS drives are still shipping and shipments of second-generation drives peaked only recently, reports Santa Barbara, CA-based Freeman Associates, an industry research firm.

Meanwhile, volumes of DDS-3 drives, which began shipping about a year ago, are ramping--albeit slowly--and a fourth generation is slated for late next year. DDS-4 will provide 20GB of native capacity, with a transfer rate of 1MBps to 3MBps. The new drive will be compatible with DDS` installed base of more than 5 million drives.

DDS` longevity, reports Freeman Associates, can be explained by the technology`s compliance to standards established by the DDS Manufacturers Group, the existence of multiple sources of supply, the wide availability of low-cost media, and a clear migration path.

The beauty of the technology, says Bob Abraham of Freeman Associates, is that a "DAT user is able to migrate, to step up." Historically, a follow-on DAT product has always been available when DAT users have demanded one--something not all technologies can claim.

Nonetheless, there is concern about DDS` future, says Fara Yale, a senior analyst with Dataquest, a research firm in San Jose, CA. DAT is being pressured by removable technologies such as Zip on the desktop, and with a questionable migration path beyond the fourth generation, DAT has left the door open for other midrange products such as AIT, Mammoth, and SLR (scalable linear recording) to capture market share from the technology. Says Bob Amatruda of IDC, an industry analyst firm in Framingham, MA, "AIT-1 and Mammoth-1 can capture 4mm users scaling up."


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