Midrange Tape: Backing Up to the Future

Midrange Tape: Backing Up to the Future

Robert Amatruda

International Data Corporation

For many years prognosticators have predicted tape, as a data storage medium, would be replaced by rewritable optical technologies and low-cost hard drives. While these technologies have increased in performance and capacity, tape storage still remains a much lower cost alternative to disk or optical.

However, the tape market is in transition. Technologies aimed at the desktop are under siege by low-cost removable magnetic devices such as Zip, SuperDisk, and SparQ. Nonetheless, we believe there is tremendous opportunity for tape in the midrange segment.

IDC considers the midrange tape market to include 4mm or DDS, MLR, 8mm, and DLT formats. Typically, these technologies are capable of storing 10GB or more of uncompressed data and have transfer rates of at least 1MBps. In addition, they have street prices below $5,000. Historically, midrange tape technologies have served as backup solutions for servers and workstations. Going forward as storage demands increase and backup windows shrink, we anticipate robust demand for tape drives capable of holding more capacity than current midrange technologies, which top out at 35GB.

A Quest for Standards

More than six new proprietary midrange tape formats are planned for delivery in 1999 and 2000. This does not bode well for users who have made significant capital investments in other tape technologies.

In an effort to bring a "standard" midrange tape format to market, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Seagate have joined forces with linear tape open (LTO). LTO sets the groundwork for the development of two distinct architectures serving two different functions.

One solution, called Accelis, targets fast access and data retrieval applications, while the other, called Ultrium, serves high-capacity backup and archive functions. The group`s aim is to make the LTO format truly open and licensable.

The LTO initiative has four generations of tape drives planned. First-generation Ultrium drives will have a native or uncompressed capacity of 100GB and a transfer rate of 10MBps. While pricing has yet to be announced, these capacity and performance stats would make Ultrium a very strong competitor against current midrange technologies, specifically DLT. Its form factor and the size of the tape cartridge will allow it to be built into existing tape libraries without major redesigns.

SuperDLT or SDLT is Quantum`s answer to the LTO initiative. The first drive is scheduled for delivery in late 1999 or 2000. Pricing has yet to be announced.

DLT tape drives are the "de facto" standard in the midrange computer backup arena. However, the stakes are high for Quantum to remain the undisputed leader in the midrange tape market. Quantum`s recently announced alliance with Tandberg Data bodes extremely well for the further expansion of the technology.

The manufacturing agreement covers existing DLT products as well as future SuperDLT products. Tandberg is set to begin manufacturing DLT in mid-1999. The onus is on Quantum and Tandberg to bring SDLT to market in late 1999 or 2000--else lose share to Sony`s AIT-2, Exabyte`s Mammoth-2, or LTO.

On the 8mm front, Exabyte is struggling to make significant inroads against DLT with Mammoth-1 (20GB/3MBps). The technology has not gained widespread support due to its late arrival to market. But don`t count Exabyte out. Exabyte has targeted high data availability as Mammoth-2`s strong-suit, with a 12MBps throughput. With product delivery expected mid-1999. Exabyte will certainly regain some bragging rights in the midrange.

In mid-1997 Sony delivered advanced intelligent tape (AIT). While offering a robust feature set and a migration path for future products, AIT has had very little OEM interest and no installed base to draw on (the format is not compatible with other 8mm technologies). AIT-2 (50GB/6MBps)--due in mid-1999--is expected to spur OEM support.

With an estimated 31% of "if sold OEM" value, the billion-dollar 4mm drive market remains the largest technology segment in the worldwide tape arena, accounting for 38% of all drive units shipped worldwide (or 1.8 million drives).

The robust growth of this market segment can be attributed to increased penetration on PC servers. Despite offering increased capacity and higher data rates, unit growth will begin to slow in the 4mm drive segment as Travan NS, offering an increased feature set and lower drive price gains acceptance on PC severs. We do not believe 4mm tape technology will make its way out of PC server and workstation platforms.

Hewlett Packard, Sony, and Seagate have announced they will adhere to the DDS-4 standard and deliver drives (20GB/1MBps to 3MBps) in the second half of 1999. Pricing will determine its ability to remain competitive with Mammoth-1 and AIT. The outlook for DDS-5 is uncertain.

Tandberg Data continues to develop its (SLR) family of products. The SLR line will face increased competition from Travan NS on the low end, and 4mm, 8mm, and DLT on the high end. The SLR tape format will continue to have challenges making strong gains against 4mm`s installed base despite Overland Data`s plan to deliver a VR2 enhanced drive in 1999. However, if Quantum decides to produce or OEM the SLR tape technology as a low-end product line it could bring expanded distribution channels and help the format compete against 4mm.

Grow the Market or Grab Market Share

The challenge for new entrants will either be to grow share or to wrestle market share from existing tape formats. New tape formats will need considerable resources to gain OEM support, distribution channels, and mind-share to successfully compete DLT, 8mm, and 4mm. Can Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Seagate form a successful triumvirate to bring a new tape storage standard mainstream? The LTO groups ultimate challenges will be to remain on target for a timely product launch and sign-on more licensees.

It is very ironic that at least six new proprietary tape formats are planned for delivery in the next two years to add to the plethora of existing tape formats in the quest for a "standard" midrange tape format.

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Robert Amatruda is senior analyst, tape and removable storage, at International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, MA.

This article was originally published on October 01, 1998