Midrange tape wars heat up

By Harriett Bennett

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After a brief summer lull, the midrange tape market is again stirring with activity. Linear tape technology is about to take several steps forward, as a new class of drives prepares to ship. Up first is Linear-Tape Open (LTO) Ultrium, followed closely by Super DLT. The two technologies will compete head-on in the hotly contested midrange market, where they will also contend with 8mm products from Exabyte and Sony. Meanwhile, Benchmark, Ecrix, and Tandberg, among others, continue to battle for share of lower-end market segments.

Clearly, by the end of this year, users will have more than enough tape technologies from which to choose, as well as enough capacity and performance to meet current-and future-storage demands.

Choosing a tape format begins with a quick comparison of speeds, capacities, and duty cycles and then a closer look at drive pricing, compatibility, connectivity, manageability, and roadmaps. Fibre Channel connectivity is particularly important if storage area networks (SANs) are planned, while backward read/write can play a key role in determining overall return on investment (ROI). In these situations, the newer formats vie to offer features, price points, or growth potential so compelling as to create a favorable total cost of ownership.

Having shipped more than 1.4 million DLT drives, Quantum has long enjoyed the lion's share of the midrange market, but a "true" next-generation product has been long in the making.

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Last August, Quantum introduced the DLT 8000, nearly four years after it first shipped the DLT 7000. With 40GB of native capacity and a 6MBps native throughput-compared to 35GB and 5MBps for the DLT 7000-the drive is viewed by most analysts as a necessary, but "interim," product.

Seeking to preserve its leadership position in the midrange, Quantum says it will begin shipping first-generation Super DLT drives next month, with two follow-on products targeted for next year. "The challenge is to move quickly with Super DLT in response to a large pent-up demand for drives of this caliber," says Phil Treide, Quantum's Super DLT product manager.

The first drive in the Super DLT platform-dubbed SDLT1-will feature 100GB of native capacity and a 10MBps native transfer rate. An 80GB/8MBps drive is scheduled for the first half of 2001, followed by a 110GB/16MBps drive later in the year. This drive will mainly target high-end Unix markets.

The basis of Super DLT's enhanced capacity and performance is laser-guided magnetic recording (LGMR), which combines optical tracking and magnetic recording. New magneto-resistive cluster (MRC) heads, a high-efficiency PRML channel, and an improved leader-buckling mechanism also boost drive performance and reliability.

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With more than 40 million DLT cartridges in the field, Quantum's greatest weapon against LTO may turn out be the drive's ability to read DLT 4000, 7000, and 8000 media. Whether or not backward compatibility will come at a premium depends on price posturing from the LTO vendors, says Treide.

IBM, for example, plans to price first-generation drives at the DLT 7000/8000 level. "We're aggressively targeting the DLT space," says Bob Maness, project manager, IBM Storage Systems Division. "We want to go out strong with a strategy that says we want to take market share from DLT."

Quantum says it will introduce Super DLT at or below $8,000, roughly the same price point of DLT 7000 and 8000 drives when they were first introduced. Launch is planned for October.

LTO charges ahead

DLT may be firmly entrenched, but LTO Ultrium has the attention of an increasing number of server and tape-automation vendors. In fact, nearly all library vendors, including ADIC, Exabyte, and Quantum/ ATL Products, plan to automate the technology as soon as it becomes available (see "IBM first to ship LTO," p.1).

Much of LTO's initial appeal can be attributed to the collaborative R&D, manufacturing, and marketing efforts put forth by co-developers Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Seagate. But with performance/capacity specifications similar to those of Super DLT, Ultrium faces somewhat of an uphill battle to persuade users to switch from DLT.

High capacity and performance, immediate adoption in automation markets, competitive pricing, broad industry support, and an aggressive migration path should drive LTO market penetration, but strong competition from Super DLT is an impeding factor, says Bob Abraham in the Freeman Report, Compact Tape Outlook 2000.

To date, nearly 30 vendors have signed on as licensees of LTO technology. (Though the LTO specification calls for two drives, Ultrium and Accelis, most of the attention thus far has been generated by Ultrium and its potential play in traditional midrange markets. IBM says it hasn't tabled the idea of an Accelis drive, but will produce it based on user demand.)

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Fujitsu, as well as founding fathers Hewlett-Packard and Seagate, plans to manufacture Ultrium drives, while numerous vendors have signed up to manufacture media. Fujifilm and Maxell recently became the first two media vendors to complete compliance certification (see list), with Fujifilm scheduled to ship product this fall.

"The large number of LTO licensees confirms the willingness of the industry to accept a new format," says Rick Boss, Hewlett-Packard's LTO product manager. It may be that vendors are embracing the open-standard platform because of the variety of features from multiple sources. "Automation vendors can further differentiate their products by choosing different LTO drives to match target markets," explains Brad Renfree, Seagate's senior product marketing manager.

Though ADIC chose to first automate the IBM drive, it has not ruled out support for other vendors' products. "If there's a compelling feature that we can't source from IBM (e.g., form factor, performance level, or price point), we'll look at other available products," says Kevin Honeycutt, executive director of product marketing, ADIC.

In addition to heightened speeds and feeds, Renfree believes users also demand better reliability. To that end, Seagate's Viper 200, which will ship in volume in the September/October time frame, incorporates several new design elements, such as FastSense, which monitors and matches data rates to reduce mechanism thrashing during back-hitch. Seagate has also minimized power consumption and heat by using two separate chassis elements, thermostat-activated fans, and a green mode of reduced power when there is no drive activity.

IBM has developed, among other things, a new timing-based servo method for exact positioning of the tape on the heads. IBM earned bragging rights this month, when it became the first LTO Ultrium drive vendor to ship Ultrium (see cover story). HP, meanwhile, is focusing on drive management, using a Cartridge Memory chip to convey information about media usage and drive status. HP is expected to introduce an entry-level Ultrium drive.

Beyond SDLT, LTO

While Quantum/LTO contingent prepare to battle, 8mm vendors-most notably, Exabyte-have been waging a war of their own in the midrange. In March, Exabyte began shipping Mammoth-2 (M2), becoming the first midrange vendor to top the 10MBps mark. And it appears Exabyte will achieve another first this month when it becomes the first midrange tape drive vendor to ship a Fibre Channel product.

"M2 delivers the best value propositions in its class, both in terms of capacity and performance," claims Chris Ilg, senior product marketing manager, Exabyte. The 60GB/12MBps drive is priced a third less than DLT 7000.

Exabyte is targeting late 2001 for a third-generation introduction. M3 will double native capacity to 120GB, with a performance boost to 20MBps.

Meanwhile, Sony this month announced plans to extend the reach of its AIT family, upward into LTO/SDL territory and downward into the DDS space. To that end, Sony next year will introduce a "reformulated" AIT-1 value line and a 100GB/11MBps AIT-3 drive.

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"It's our strategy to become 'best-in-class' in the midrange, but not to compete at the enterprise level," says John Woelbern, senior product marketing manager, Sony.

Sony defines the midrange as the area between DDS and the enterprise, or the $1,500 to $5,000 space. On the automation front, however, AIT may make a play in the enterprise due to its 3.5-inch half-height form factor and density.

By introducing these products, Sony-similar to Benchmark and Quantum-says it will provide a clear migration path for all levels of midrange users. Says Woelbern: AIT-1 will enable DDS users to transition to the AIT platform, and AIT-3 will meet the evolving capacity needs of current AIT-2 users. (Note: A supplier of DDS technology, Sony currently has no plans to develop a DDS-5 product.)

Though the AIT roadmap calls for a doubling of capacity and performance every two years, Sony is putting more emphasis on capacity-perhaps in an effort to distinguish itself from its closest competitors.

Sony recently invested $34 million in its Dothan, AL, facility, bringing AIT-2 tape production on-line there. Sony doesn't anticipate any lag in media availability for AIT-3.

Low-end appeal

While new levels of capacity and speed are presented to the most demanding applications in the enterprise, vendors such as Ecrix, Benchmark, and Tandberg are offering new echelons of value in the form of new or extended formats. In this especially cost-sensitive area of the market-sandwiched between DDS and higher duty-cycle drives like DLT 7000-value is the message.

Priced less than $900 and with 40GB of native capacity and a 3MBps native throughput, Ecrix's VXA1 competes with DDS4, DLT1, and SLR, as well as AIT-1 and Mammoth. With features like discrete packet form, over-scanning, and variable-speed operation, Ecrix believes VXA1 provides performance, capacity, and reliability that are comparable to more expensive technologies.

Benchmark Tape Systems has also made waves recently. In July, the company signed an OEM deal with Dell, becoming a supplier of DLT1 drives for Dell's PowerVault Storage line. And, in August, Benchmark and Quantum announced that Super DLT, when it becomes available later this year, will read DLT1 media, providing a bridge between DLT1 and the Super DLT platform.

"By combining Benchmark and Quantum products, users will be able to meet their storage needs in a continuous 'migratable' path from the desktop to the enterprise," says a Benchmark official.

Currently, DLT1, which uses DLTtape IV media, is backward read compatible with the DLT4000. DLT1 is based on technology licensed from Quantum.

While Benchmark and Ecrix target low-end markets, Tandberg takes aim at a broader section of the midrange market. Its quarter-inch SLR linear technology platform spans entry-level and midrange server segments. The top-of-the-line 50GB/5MBps SLR100 has a street price of less than $2,000. Tandberg plans to expand its line-up next year with a 75GB, 10+MBps drive.

The battle lines have been drawn. With so much new technology just now hitting the streets, it may be too soon to predict victors. One thing is certain, though. With competition so fierce and innovation so rampant, users will be winners.

Harriett Bennett is a freelance writer based in Kirkland, WA.

LTO technology licensees

Advanced Research Corporation
Alps Electric
Benchmark Tape Systems
EMTEC Magnetics GmbH
Fuji Photo Film
Fujitsu/FCPA Intellistor
Hitachi Maxell
M4 Data
Matsushita Electric Industry
Mitsumi Electric Co.
Mountain Engineering II
Overland Data
Phillips Semiconductor Gratkorn GmbH
Plasmon IDE
Seagate Technology

This article was originally published on September 01, 2000