Sony bests LTO, SDLT with 500GB S-AIT drive

By Heidi Biggar

Sony recently began volume shipments of Super AIT (S-AIT) tape drives, which the company claims creates a new class of "super" tape drives—a distinction warranted by the drive's industry-high 500GB native capacity.

"We're fundamentally positioning S-AIT as a new class of super drives [set apart from LTO, SDLT, and AIT] to counteract the move from tape to lower-cost ATA disk, and in doing so maintain tape's economic viability," says John Woelbern, director of OEM marketing and sales for Sony Electronics' tape storage solution division.

According to the Information Storage Industry Consortium (INSIC), for tape to remain an economically viable solution versus disk, tape capacity must keep pace with disk capacity growth on a cost-per-gigabyte basis. INSIC members include Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Quantum, Seagate, and Sony.

Sony claims that tape—in particular, helical scan varieties—has the potential to grow at a much faster rate than disk, whose growth is fundamentally checked by super-paramagnetic limitations. Helical scan tape formats have the added benefit of being able to write more tracks in the same space compared to linear tape products, according to Sony.

Interestingly, Sony does not expect to see significant migration from tape to disk at the high-end where S-AIT is positioned, but at the low-end where its digital data storage (DDS) format plays.

In a recent InfoStor reader survey on backup plans, 42% of respondents said they planned to purchase disk-based backup products instead of tape in the next six to 12 months, while 56% of these same respondents said they planned to purchase more tape. (See article on p. 1.)

While S-AIT is not expected to replace Sony's high-end digital tape format (DTF) product line out of the gate, the company is expecting DTF users, depending on their level of investment in the technology (and in the company's DTF-based PetaSite mass storage library), to migrate to the S-AIT platform gradually. "Over time, the DTF market will be better served by S-AIT," says Woelbern.

Although there is potential overlap between AIT and S-AIT, Sony officials say they will use the AIT platform to bridge the gap between the desktop and the enterprise and reserve S-AIT for strictly high-end applications like enterprise-level archiving, data protection, and storage of video, graphics, and other digital content.

Bob Abraham of Ojai, CA-based Freeman Reports says, "S-AIT, because of its extraordinary capacity, commands attention for all very-high-capacity applications, especially in automated solutions."

Specific S-AIT target markets include the broadcast, video, and digital asset management industries, as well as database-intensive markets. S-AIT drives are designed for automation, not stand-alone use. The drives come in a 5.25-inch form factor (vs. 3.5-inch for previous AIT generations) and use standard single-reel half-inch cartridges.

As for its DTF line of tape drives, Sony says it has no plans to make any incremental changes to the drive road map, which currently tops out at 200GB native. However, the company is expected to introduce a fourth-generation AIT drive with the same capacity/performance specs as DTF-2 by year-end. AIT-4 will be read-compatible with AIT-1 and AIT-2 and read/write-compatible with AIT-3.

Though S-AIT is not backward-compatible with current or future AIT formats (due to the switch in form factor), the drive technology does leverage many AIT technologies, including on-tape recording formats, areal densities, media formulations, and Remote Memory-in-Cassette technology.

Sony acknowledges that gaining traction in the market with a new—and not backward-compatible—tape format will take time and will not be without challenges. "We'll face the normal barriers, but there's the opportunity for a substantial position in the market over the long term," says Woelbern.

And if industry analysts' forecasts are any indication, there will be a sizable market opportunity for "super" tape drives—even those without backward compatibility. "S-AIT is entering a very competitive, well-served, but dynamic market segment with strong upside potential," says Freeman's Abraham.

According to a new Freeman Reports study, shipments of super tape drives more than doubled last year, with all five drive vendors in this space (Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Quantum, Seagate, and Sony) posting quarter-to-quarter gains. Relative newcomer LTO took top honors with a 62% market share, versus 32% for SDLT.

Sony is working with Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics Industries Ltd. (MKE) and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (MEI) to provide second sources of both S-AIT drives and media, respectively. The companies demonstrated a stand-alone drive and media at Sony AIT Forum last month.

Sony is working with its library partners to integrate the S-AIT technology into their automation lineups and with its PetaSite development team to bring an S-AIT-based PetaSite storage system to market. The new S-PetaSite system will be capable of storing thousands of hours of video and up to 1.26 petabytes of data in a compact unit, according to company officials.


Battle of the 'super drives'


Manufacturer: Sony
Capacity/Performance: 500GB/30MBps
Availability: Shipping in volume.

SDLT 320

Manufacturers: Quantum, Tandberg
Capacity/Performance: 160GB/16MBps
Availability: Shipping in volume.

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This article was originally published on April 01, 2003