Tape formats proliferating

Posted on June 01, 1999

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Tape formats proliferating

Newcomers Benchmark, Ecrix, and OnStream challenge low-end and midrange incumbents.

By Heidi Biggar

Once the undisputed tape storage solution for low-end server and workstation markets, 4mm DDS faces stiff competition from a new crop of tape technologies. Admittedly, newcomers Benchmark Tape Systems, Ecrix, and OnStream face an uphill battle against entrenched products like DDS and, to a lesser degree, Travan NS, AIT/8mm, and SLR. But to their credit, the new technologies in some cases offer equal--if not higher--apacity and performance at competitive price points.

"This is the first time Seagate, HP, and Sony have had tough competition in the DDS space," says Bob Abraham, vice president of Freeman Associates, an industry research firm in Santa Barbara, CA. "Each of the new technologies brings something to the market." DDS forecasts, however, remain bullish through the millennium.

Regardless, the influx of products raises an important question: Can the market support so many technologies, especially when the total tape pie isn`t expected to grow significantly? Analysts say it can.

"You can always argue that if two or three new technologies enter the marketplace, ultimately two or three will have to leave," says Abraham, "but that`s not necessarily the case. What we are finding is that companies are adopting technologies two or three at a time."

Most drive and library manufacturers are broadening their offerings to provide complete soup-to-nuts solutions for users. Tandberg, for example, earlier this year added DLT to its product menu, while Seagate complemented its DDS and Travan line-up with Sony`s AIT just two years ago. Meanwhile, HP, IBM, and Seagate are preparing to introduce drives based on the Linear Tape Open (LTO) format, extending their reach upward into more demanding environments.

"It`s very difficult for vendors to survive on a single technology today," comments Abraham. "The new technologies will likely find their way into [current] tape drive companies and become part of their menus." Additionally, they will need to find their way into automation products. Of the three new drive manufacturers, only Benchmark--with its soon-to-be-announced DLT-compatible drive--appears to have the attention of library manufacturers.

On deck

From a technology standpoint, Ecrix has a compelling new architecture. From a marketing standpoint, the company has a daunting challenge.

Ecrix`s VXA is a mix of old and new technologies. Perhaps most notably, the drive features Variable Speed Operation (VSO), which means the drive adjusts its speed to that of the host. Because the tape does not have to be repositioned each time data flow is interrupted, "backhitching" is prevented. A common phenomenon with conventional streaming technologies, backhitching causes undue tape wear.

"VXA is the first commercially available tape drive to offer this functionality," says International Data Corp. analyst Bob Amatruda. "The new tape format marks a departure from the traditional commercially available streaming tape technologies and is a clear differentiating feature when compared with other midrange (4mm, SLR, and 8mm) technologies."

Other features include Discrete Packet Format (DPF) and OverScan Operation (OSO). DPF, which actually enables VSO and OSO, breaks long messages into multiple packets, which are re-assembled in the drive`s buffer. Each packet has its own address information and error correction capabilities. The net result: VXA reads tape both backward and forward; the drive`s overscan capabilities ensure optimum data retrieval and interchange.

Ecrix offers two cartridge capacities: a 62-meter 12GB cartridge plays into the existing DDS space, while a 170-meter 33GB cartridge is more in line with AIT-1 specs. However, Ecrix is primarily targeting DDS. "Wherever DDS is going, we want to go," says Mike Saunders, Ecrix`s vice president of marketing. Priced at $1,295 (just below DDS-3), VXA is targeting DDS`s sweet spot: high-end Unix workstations and NT servers.

Another new technology on the block is OnStream`s Advanced Digital Recording (ADR). Initially developed by Philips Electronics, ADR is a variable-speed storage architecture based on an eight-channel head design that reads and writes eight tracks of data simultaneously for increased performance. Other features in-clude an advanced servo system, which improves reliability; media defect mapping to prevent the drive from writing to defective portions of the tape; and spatially distributed Error Correction Code to minimize data loss.

The result, says Andy Grolnick, OnStream`s vice president of marketing, is a technology that addresses two distinct markets. With point-and-click access to files, the DI30 (internal IDE) and DP30 (external parallel port) fit nicely in power desktops and technical workstation environments, while the SC30 (internal SCSI) and just-announced SC50 meet the capacity and performance needs of NT server environments. And like VXA, ADR is value priced.

OnStream`s 50GB [compressed] drive offers twice the capacity and performance of DDS3 for about the same price. For more price-sensitive customers, there`s the SC30, which provides slightly more capacity, double the performance, at about half the price. On the desktop, the 15GB DI30 and DP30 drives go head-to-head with Travan--in particular, NS models--and with non-tape removable products such as Jaz, DVD-RAM, and CD-RW.

Grolnick says that the desktop market is a much bigger market for OnStream than the server arena. "People working in the graphics community and people downloading from the Internet are running out of space very quickly. The capacity and low cost-per-GB make our desktop drives a compelling choice, even in the traditional Travan space."

Nonetheless, OnStream is working on a higher-capacity, higher-performance server product for release next year. Also, in the near term the company is expected to broaden its server line to support Linux and Netware, and will also introduce an external SCSI drive.

Bridging the gap

While OnStream and Ecrix tackle new technologies, Benchmark is readying a DLT-derivative drive for production later this year. Despite its stance not to unveil product specs before the announcement date, Benchmark has let slip a few details about its initial offering and road map, including target capacity, price, and performance points.

"Our tagline, `The power of DLT at the price of DDS,` epitomizes our objective," says Mike Befeler, Benchmark`s vice president of marketing. "We`re taking DLT to a new price/performance point in the market. We want to address the segment that is not looking for SuperDLT capacity and performance, but really wants the robustness of DLT and the price point they`ve come to expect with DDS."

The fact that the drive is based on DLT-licensed technology and is read-compatible with the DLT4000 gives Benchmark immediate credibility in drive and automation circles, and perhaps a leg-up on its competitors. In fact, at the time this article went to press, a partnership with a leading library manufacturer was pending. Meanwhile, response to Ecrix`s VXA has been lukewarm in the library manufacturer community. Though VXA can be easily automated, library manufacturers are taking a "wait-and-see" approach to supporting VXA.

Benchmark`s "DLT-lite" road map calls for a doubling of capacity and performance over three generations. Benchmark would not say if follow-on products would be compatible with the DLT4000 or successive generations of DLTtape drives, or would simply go off in their own direction. However, Befeler did say that Benchmark is "looking into alternatives with Quantum about how the two could work together over the long term."

Along the same lines, earlier this spring Exabyte announced Mammoth-LT. Like Benchmark, Exabyte is trying to bridge the gap between lower-end products such as its 8505XL and Eliant 820 drives, and more costly midrange products such as its Mammoth family.

"With the introduction of Mammoth-LT, we`ve created an economical entry into our Mammoth technology," says Bill Marriner, Exabyte`s president, CEO, and chairman. The drive is backward compatible with Exabyte`s installed base of 8mm drives and libraries. Its 14GB capacity, 2MBps transfer rate, and $1,895 price tag position the drive in the middle of DDS territory. The drive will be automated in the Exabyte EZ17 autoloader.

DDS, Travan hang tough

While startups Benchmark, Ecrix, and OnStream battle over territory, it is pretty much status quo in the Travan, DDS, and SLR camps, despite declining overall Travan shipments and talk of DDS` pending demise.

"There is broad appeal in the marketplace for solutions that are available from different companies, and a hesitation to back up data on a new technology that is supported by only one company," says Kevin Perry, senior director of marketing at Seagate. Add to this the power of brand recognition and the tape industry`s notoriously slow response time in adjusting to market shifts, and the scale tilts heavily in the incumbents` favor.

"Assuming it ships on schedule, DDS-4 will do very well in the short term," says Abraham. Sony and Seagate both announced DDS-4 drives last quarter; Sony says it will begin volume shipments this month. HP is also expected to make an announcement this month.

However, over the longer term, analysts` projections are less bullish, due to questions of when--or if--a fifth-generation drive will make it to market. DDS-5 is currently being discussed in the DDS Manufacturers` Group, of which HP, Seagate, and Sony are members. Perry says Seagate will make an announcement within the next six months.

Dataquest expects the installed base of DDS drives to increase from 4.7 million in 1997 to 5.4 million in 2003. Unit shipments and revenue will continue to decline, however.

Meanwhile, the minicartridge market, comprised primarily of Travan drives, continues to be squeezed on the desktop by tape alternatives such as Zip and SuperDisk. However, Travan NS products are faring somewhat better.

"What we`re seeing is a rapid decline in non-Travan unit shipments, while Travan shipments are on the increase," says Abraham. "In a very short time, the minicartridge market will be all Travan NS." After posting a -28% growth rate last year, Dataquest expects unit shipments to stabilize at 1.5 million units this year, down from 1.7 million units last year.

Despite pressure on the desktop, Travan manufacturers Aiwa, Hewlett-Packard, Imation, Seagate, Tandberg, and Tecmar continue to announce new products. For example, last month Aiwa unveiled an external 4GB USB Travan drive for Macintosh environments, and Seagate expanded its Travan line-up with the Hornet 20GB SCSI drive.

But perhaps the biggest potential boost to the technology came this spring when Imation announced it had licensed Overland Data`s Variable Rate Randomizer (VR2) technology, to be used in future generations of NS drives. "VR2 will be standard across the whole platform," says Steve Dwyer, business development manager, network storage, at Imation. The technology will reportedly enable Travan NS to hit 30GB native capacity, with only incremental changes to the drive. Product availability, capacity and price have not been announced.

Lastly, Tandberg continues to chug along with its SLR line of data cartridge drives, with OEM customers such as Compaq, IBM, Sun, and Tandem. Much of Tandberg`s success, says Abraham, can be attributed to its loyal following, which have been using data cartridges for years.

"There`s no reason for a data cartridge user to change," says Abraham. "In fact, there`s a reason for them to stay right where they are. They`ve got compatibility with existing tapes and a reliable source. It`s a very old technology, which also means that it`s very mature, stable, and low risk."

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