Tape vendors fight back

New, more-powerful drives on the horizon

By Heidi Biggar

The tape industry is facing a new set of harsh realities. Hard drives are getting faster and cheaper, and the cost per megabyte of low-end disk arrays is quickly approaching that of tape-automation products.

Tape technology simply isn't keeping pace with disk advances, says John Woelbern, director of OEM marketing for Sony Electronics' tape streamer products. "This puts tape in a very precarious position."

If recent announcements from Alacritus, Nexsan, Rave, and other software and disk-array vendors are any indication, ATA disk drives are set to play a significant role in some traditional tape markets (see "Disk and tape forge new partnership in backup arena," InfoStor, November 2001, p. 1, and "ATA puts the squeeze on SCSI," InfoStor, January 2002, p.1).

"Tape has to have the ability to scale with disk," explains Woelbern. "The question is, how do you get there?"

Sony believes the answer is S-AIT, its new half-inch helical tape platform. S-AIT leverages AIT media and head technology, but unlike AIT, has a 5.25-inch form factor. "This is the breakthrough," claims Woelbern. "We've been able to take AIT helical technology and record it onto 600m of tape in a single-reel, half-inch form factor."

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Last spring, Sony demonstrated areal densities to 6.5Gb per square inch using a high-density advanced metal evaporated (AME) media formulation that can be recorded at extremely low noise levels. The media will be used in S-AIT as well as three more generations of AIT. The S-AIT road map calls for at least four drive generations with native capacities to 4TB.

With about five times the capacity and twice the performance of first-generation SDLT and LTO drives, S-AIT, according to Woelbern, has the best chance of any tape format, including Super DLTtape and LTO, to battle disk. "We know disk will be key in certain areas," he says, "but S-AIT will allow us to compete in data recovery, archival, and OLTP markets." Sony claims S-AIT capacity will exceed that of hard disk drives by 2003.

Another key to S-AIT's success, Woelbern contends, will be automation. While S-AIT is a new tape platform for Sony, its half-inch form factor will reportedly make library integration fairly painless. "It's not exactly plug and play, but it will allow for quick adoption into the automation market," he says.

Initial S-AIT shipments are expected toward year-end. Sony says it will alternate AIT/S-AIT product releases going forward, with two years between each platform introduction. S-AIT will retail for under $10,000; AIT-3 is priced under $4,000. Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics (MKE) and Matsushita Electric Industrial (MEI) will also manufacture S-AIT drives and media, respectively.

Ultrium-2 licenses available

Keeping to its original road map, LTO Ultrium technology providers Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Seagate later this quarter will make Ultrium-2 licenses available to the storage community. Product shipments are expected within nine to 21 months.

"Products will be ready when the market is and will unlikely be delayed by current economic conditions," says Brad Renfree, director, LTO product line management, Seagate removable storage solutions. "Users are continually looking for more capacity and better performance."

Ultrium-2 boosts capacity from 100GB to 200GB (native) and data-transfer rates from 10/20MBps to 20/40MBps (native). Other improvements include a 30% increase in the number of data tracks, an improved recording method (PRML versus RLL 1,7), and higher average tape speeds.

"We haven't pushed the technology too hard," says Stephen Holmes, new business creation, Hewlett-Packard, "which keeps to our message of consistency and reliability and 'evolutionary' versus 'revolutionary' advances."

Ultrium-2 will be read/write compatible with Ultrium-1 and, like the first-generation specification, will give storage and media vendors significant latitude in implementing mechanical and electrical designs. Such freedom not only allows vendors to differentiate their product offerings, but also gives users true multiple sources of drives and cartridges, explains Felix Muñoz, OEM and LTO marketing, at IBM.

"Lack of dependency on one vendor has been the real driver of growth," says Muñoz. All three vendors report an uptick in LTO Ultrium sales and OEM interest over the past couple of months. In November, the triumvirate reported that it had shipped its one-millionth cartridge. Ultrium first began shipping in September 2000.

The Ultrium road map calls for four generations of drives, with two to three years between product announcements. Capacity and performance roughly double each release.

Exabyte 'super-sizes,' Quantum to ship SDLT320

While it is too early to talk specifics, Exabyte says it is seriously looking into coming out with its own super drive in the next 18 months or so. According to company officials, the drive will likely be a Mammoth/VXA hybrid. Exabyte inherited VXA from Ecrix in November 2001 (see "Acquisitions ripple through storage industry," InfoStor, October 2001, p. 1).

The idea, says Melissa Price, director of product marketing at Exabyte, is to take Mammoth's high-performance characteristics and VXA's reliability and "blend" them into a single, compatible format. The combination would theoretically allow users to scale upwards without sacrificing previous investments in either technology.

In the meantime, Exabyte expects to introduce Mammoth-3 late next quarter. The drive is slated to have a 120GB capacity and a 14MBps transfer rate. Exabyte says it has put plans for a fourth-generation Mammoth drive on hold until the road map for its proposed super drive is finalized.

With plans to begin shipping a second-generation SDLT drive still more than a year away, Quantum this spring is expected to begin shipping an interim drive, the SDLT320. With this release, Quantum says it will boost drive capacity to 320GB and data-transfer rates to 16MBps. The drive will be backward read/write-compatible with the SDLT220.

The four-generation SDLT road map tops out with 1.2TB of capacity in the 2006/2007 time frame. Throughput is expected to exceed 100MBps (see "Quantum announces aggressive road map," InfoStor, September 2001, p. 16).

DTF: The original super drive?

With 200GB of native capacity and a 24MBps sustained transfer rate, Sony's DTF-2 tape drive is arguably one of today's most powerful super drives. While its power and price tag has long kept it in high-end markets battling against products like StorageTek's 9840/9940, DTF is slowly but surely making its way into Ultrium, SDLT, and S-AIT territory.

In fact, the specs for S-AIT and DTF-3 are remarkably similar (see chart), which begs the question, "Why do both?"

The answer, says Tom Yuhas, general manager of Sony's data systems and transmission division, is simple: DTF users have storage requirements in the multi-terabytes and are actually using tape to process data. In contrast, S-AIT will be used primarily as a backup or archive target.

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In addition to its higher throughput (48MBps versus 30MBps), DTF has a dual-reel design, which allows for faster access to data than is possible with single-reel tape formats (e.g., S-AIT). For still faster access, users can choose between cartridge capacities. Lower capacity means less tape; less tape means faster access, says Yuhas.

Sony says it will continue to take a top-down approach with DTF and a bottom-up approach with S-AIT. Ultimately, the two technologies will meet in the middle. The question is, when they do, will Sony make the two formats compatible? "It's possible," says Yuhas.

This article was originally published on February 01, 2002