Tracking tape library technology trends

Tracking tape library technology trends


If the past few months are any indication of the level of storage area network (SAN) activity we can expect--and analysts say it is--1999 may very well turn out to be the year of the SAN. Industry players across the board have the fever, including tape library manufacturers.

So, it`s not surprising that when asked about trends in automation, the overwhelming response among vendors is SANs and SAN-related technologies and issues such as Fibre Channel, storage management, and data sharing. Of course, it`s necessary to separate hype from reality.

By all accounts, SAN development is still in its infancy, yet that hasn`t stopped it from becoming the most talked-about storage technology. "It`s amazing how much buzz there is around Fibre Channel and SANs, and how few sites can actually use it," says Bob Covey, vice president of marketing at Qualstar. "Right now, there`s very little measurable sales benefits from a tape vendor`s perspective--it`s all marketing benefits."

But with analysts projecting huge Fibre Channel SAN opportunities over the next few years, library manufacturers, including Qualstar, have already begun posturing for a piece of this billion-dollar market (see News, p.1). "Each of the players want to make sure they have a product and capability that is competitive and leading edge," comments Bob Abraham, vice president of Santa Barbara-based Freeman Associates, an industry research firm.

The challenge, says Britt Terry, a library product manager at Spectra Logic, is putting together a solution that matches customer needs. Right now, those pieces are just starting to come together. "Everyone keeps drawing a cloud in the middle of SAN diagrams, but the scary thing is you can`t see too far into the cloud before things start getting really murky. The vendors who can show you how wires connect and can actually do it inside that cloud will be the winners. And it doesn`t matter if that`s a VAR or a tape library manufacturer."

Fibre Channel update

It goes without saying that Fibre Channel and SANs go hand-in-hand. And like SANs, Fibre Channel is beginning to penetrate the tape market--albeit at a much slower pace than it is in disk markets.

But the migration to Fibre Channel has been anything but seamless, and is far from complete. Some of the problems can be attributed to the use of routers, or bridges, many of which were originally designed for disk and are now being adapted to tape.

"The performance of a disk-based bridge is not real good when you try to use it for tape," contends Spectra Logic`s Terry. Designed to transfer data in small bursts, disk-based bridges, or routers, cannot meet the high throughput requirements of higher-performance tape drives.

As next-generation drives such as AIT-2, Mammoth-2, SuperDLT, and LTO emerge, these performance issues become increasingly important. That`s why Spectra Logic chose to develop its own Fibre Channel bridge. "We were going to license a bridge," says Terry. "However, when we started testing it, we found out that it would probably work well today, but with next-generation drives, it wouldn`t." In November, Spectra Logic announced an integrated bridge based on a 64-bit Fibre PCI bus structure that uses QLogic SCSI/Fibre Channel processors.

Performance issues aside, interoperability is also a concern for library vendors. Exabyte says it went through more than 20 firmware revisions before shipping a Fibre Channel solution. Likewise, Overland Data reports minor software and hardware glitches in its ongoing testing. "Only certain combinations of products are working today," says Steve Richardson, vice president of marketing at Overland, "and it`s really not a function of the library, but all the other pieces--which in the final analysis prevents systems from working together."

Despite these problems, a variety of Fibre Channel solutions are available for users who want them--and more are expected. This month, for example, IBM is expected to announce a solution for its 3570 and 3575 libraries. Meanwhile, Spectra Logic is working on a new product that is designed to provide SCSI, Fibre Channel and, ultimately, gigabit Ethernet connectivity. Initially, it will be integrated into Spectra 10000 libraries, though the Gator (to be announced this spring) and Tree Frog series will later support the technology. The "engine" attaches to the back of a library, providing one Fibre Channel connection in and two Ultra SCSI connections out. Up to eight modules can be attached.

Farther out, ATL Products hopes to be the first to unveil a dual-path, dual-ported library, which will extend redundancy with two Fibre Channel paths to the library for high-availability environments. "We`ll have two optical cables coming out, one to switch A and the other to switch B, both with dual loops," explains Frank Berry, ATL vice president of marketing. From a hardware standpoint, the technology is ready to go, but the clustering software that makes the library aware of the second paths and the directory has a way to go. ATL hopes to announce the product late this year.

Other announced solutions include Sony`s direct-attached Fibre Channel DTF-2 drive (see INFOSTOR, January, p. 47) and ATL`s Fibre Channel card solution, which will be integrated into its P1000 family.

On the router/bridge front, a number of tape library manufacturers are reselling devices from Crossroads. Examples include ADIC, ATL, Compaq, Exabyte, Hewlett-Packard, and StorageTek.

And lastly, there`s talk of Fibre Channel at the drive level as early as year-end. However, right now, "either the protocols don`t exist or the silicon isn`t there," says Steve Georgis, director of technology and business development at Exabyte. As to the advantages of integrating Fibre Channel at the drive versus the library level, the jury is still out. "There`s still a lot of debate about that," continues Georgis, "but I think some of the people who say there`s no benefit are looking at today`s tape drives and not tomorrow`s."

Management poses challenges

Perhaps the most pressing--and complex--issue today is storage management. It`s a trend that`s being driven by the rising popularity of storage networks and the need to centrally manage and share data across the enterprise.

While software solutions abound (one notable example is Intelliguard`s Celestra Series), so far none provide the panacea the industry`s been waiting for. Nevertheless, strides are being made. StorageTek, for example, last month announced TimberWolf Tape Library Monitor. While similar products exist (e.g., HP`s TapeAlert, ATL`s WebAdmin, and STK`s ACSLS), this software is the first to provide library management support (for STK 7430 and 97XX libraries only) through systems/networking packages such as CA Unicenter TNG and HP OpenView (see screenshot). It does not provide active control of libraries, simply monitoring.

"By integrating our libraries with Computer Associate`s and Hewlett-Packard`s system management environments," says Sylvia Summers, vice president and general manager of StorageTek`s multiplatform group, "our customers can leverage their technology investments by managing storage within a centralized framework." A Web-based interface for remote monitoring, and support for IBM Tivoli, are expected this quarter.

Also last month, Overland Data announced Web-TLC (total library control), remote monitoring technology for its LibraryXpress and LoaderXpress families. Web-TLC is platform-independent software that enables administrators to remotely configure, monitor and, more importantly, control libraries through a browser. For example, administrators can resolve problems remotely, such as issuing a command to clean the heads of a tape drive. The software will be available this quarter.

Data sharing: a prerequisite

Another trend that is facilitated by SANs is data sharing, whether it`s at the library or the drive level. "That capability is a must," says Freeman Associates` Abraham, "and it should enable faster acceptance of tape libraries and drives."

One proposed solution is Media Server, a library management standard being jointly developed by StorageTek and Veritas Software for open-systems environments. (For more details, see INFOSTOR, January, p.10). Media Server will enable library sharing across multiple platforms (e.g., Unix and NT) and applications (e.g., backup/restore and HSM).

Other potential benefits include centralized management of distributed resources, a reduction in total cost of ownership of removable storage systems, and broader hardware support. The proposed standard is based on StorageTek`s ACSLS and Veritas` VML technologies, and is being marketed to hardware and software vendors alike.

Elsewhere, Open Microsystems (Austin, TX) in December announced Enterprise DistribuTAPE, a software product that allows multiple ADSM servers to share a pool of tape drives and robotic libraries over conventional TCP/IP networks or in SAN environments. And in April, Tape Labs (Los Angeles, CA) will begin shipping TapeServer, a product that will enable sharing at the library and drive level. According to Tape Labs CTO Alan Ignatin, the software works with any vendor`s libraries and is platform independent. Other features include a web browser interface, SNMP compliance, a TCP/IP connection, and tape RAID functionality. It will be available in stand-alone or rack-mountable configurations and will list for $12,000 to $50,000, depending on the number of hosts.

And this spring, ADIC is expected to extend the availability of its AMASS software to tape libraries. The software, which was announced last November, is a file system for removable media that, among other things, provides drag-and-drop library access across the network. It also automates file indexing, media spanning, and data storage and retrieval activities for tape and optical libraries in NT environments.

For users, the software`s benefits are twofold: shared tape/optical storage and disk-like access retrieval. Perhaps equally important, Amass reduces hands-on management time and overall storage costs. Says Steve Whitner, director of marketing at ADIC, Amass not only allows "you to store away data that you don`t need, but in essence it also makes it possible to store away the administration of that data too."

ADIC believes the file software will increase the use of tape libraries as generalized storage, not just backup. The challenge, says Whitner, will be convincing systems administrators that in addition to disk storage, they need general-purpose near-line storage. The software works with existing backup, database, and other software. Tape support is tagged at $800; optical at $1,000.

Lesser trends

Just six months ago, the tape industry was buzzing with news about emerging drive technologies, such as LTO, SuperDLT, AIT-2, and Mammoth-2. Though enthusiasm over these technologies has waned somewhat, most vendors` plans call for libraries based around at least one--if not all--of these technologies. In most cases, library vendors are simply waiting for the drives to become available. Quantum, for example, has been working with ADIC, ATL, Breece Hill, Hewlett-Packard, Overland, and StorageTek to integrate SuperDLT when it becomes available later this year.

Beyond new tape technologies, library manufacturers are also closely tracking TeraStor`s near-field recording (NFR) drives. Many vendors are discussing the possibility of combining NFR and various tape technologies within a SAN. And there`s even talk about mixing multiple technologies within libraries.

"With NFR, it`s really the first time you can start thinking about a library having mixed media inside it," says Exabyte`s Georgis. However, he adds that, in a storage networking environment, similar benefits could be achieved by simply putting two libraries side-by-side, equally sharable across the storage network, but focused on a specific media (i.e., NFR, tape, etc.).

TeraStor`s library partners include ATL, DISC, Exabyte, Overland, Plasmon, and Spectra Logic.

This list of trends is by no means exhaustive. One notable addition is tape RAID, which is clearly picking up momentum (see INFOSTOR, January, p. 1). Vendors are also working on a variety of network-attached storage (NAS) solutions, as well as modular architectures that allow them to easily adapt to ever-changing tape/storage network environments.

Click here to enlarge image

Click here to enlarge image

StorageTek`s TimberWolf Tape Library Monitor provides library management support for two families of STK libraries through systems/networking packages such as CA Unicenter TNG (shown) and HP OpenView.

This article was originally published on March 01, 1999