Not dead yet

Tape storage makes a stand in archival and some backup applications

Tape storage lives on, despite expectations to the contrary.

Some observers have said the rise of disk storage — which offers faster backup and recovery speeds and a decreasing price tag — signals the end of tape. But Freeman Reports, a company that tracks the tape industry, forecasts a 6 percent revenue growth for compact tape through 2010. Compact tape covers a wide swath of the market, from tape drives for desktop computers to products that support low-end enterprise systems.

Government and industry executives assert that tape will continue to play a role in the evolving enterprise storage hierarchy. That role will increasingly involve archiving data as more backup chores go to disk.

One enduring attraction of tape cartridges is that administrators can remove them from drives and ship them to an off-site location. Not every organization will want to take on the cost and complexity of disk-to-disk remote mirroring, in which data simultaneously writes to a local and remote disk. For those organizations, tape represents a pivotal element of disaster recovery. Even some remote-mirroring adherents keep tape around as an additional failsafe.

Tape storage vendors, however, aren’t relying on the technology’s historical benefits to stay alive. They are boosting tape’s capacity and throughput to keep pace with the growing volume of data that most organizations are amassing.

In addition, vendors are increasingly pushing tape automation by introducing lower-cost autoloaders and improving the manageability of high-end tape libraries.

“I think tape is going to be around for a long time,” said Robert Rosen, president of Share, an IBM user group, and chief information officer at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).

Tape’s changing role
Kelly Fish, a storage specialist at reseller CDW, agreed that tape will press on, but in a different capacity.

“Its role is changing to more of an archival piece because of the falling prices of disk,” she said. “The archival piece is still very necessary. Putting in another level of backup is not something people are shying away from.”

Some users say disk cuts backup time nearly in half compared with tape. They also cite disk technology’s rapid data restore time. Think of the difference in finding a particular scene in a movie on a DVD vs. a VHS tape. The same mechanics apply to data storage.

Consequently, disk has begun to unseat tape from its traditional backup job. A growing number of information technology shops back up primary disk storage to near-line storage systems, which employ inexpensive disk technologies such as Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) and Serial ATA.

Some ATA arrays act as virtual tape libraries, which interact with backup programs as if they were real tape libraries, meaning administrators don’t need to change routines.

But even organizations that use near-line storage often still add tape backup behind the two layers of disk storage. Industry analysts say more customers are pursuing the disk-to-disk-to-tape approach.

“Within the next five years, that will be the de facto way people are doing backups,” said Curtis Preston, vice president of data protection at GlassHouse Technologies, a consulting firm that specializes in storage. He said many IT departments already use this approach.

The Agriculture Department’s National Finance Center uses a mix of disk and tape to create a local backup of primary storage. A virtual tape server (VTS) handles most of the local data backup, but tape storage supplements the VTS, said Gilbert Hawk, the center’s chief information officer. Specifically, the center uses an IBM VTS product, which provides a disk cache as the front end of a tape library.

The National Finance Center also produces daily disaster recovery backups, using 1,500 to 2,500 tapes in the process. Those tapes go to an off-site location for storage. A yet-to-be-activated backup facility will provide disk-based remote mirroring of data.

Tape’s presence could diminish as the technology becomes a tertiary level of storage, Fish said. She added that some buyers may scale back the size of tape libraries and shift the storage budget to disk instead.

Consider this example of disk’s potential for consolidating tape libraries: IBM’s TotalStorage 3494 Virtual Tape Server Model B20 can house as many as 500,000 virtual tapes.

Tape becomes the medium of last resort in organizations that embrace disk-based backup and disaster recovery, said Tim Schilbach, network engineer at Apogen Technologies, a government solutions provider.

Only the destruction of primary and mirrored storage facilities or a problem with the link between them would send IT managers searching for tapes, he added.

In a disk-centric environment, “you don’t think about [tape] until something really, really bad happens,” Schilbach said.

But customers continue to think about tape and, in some cases, not just for archival purposes. Richard Moore, director of production systems at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, said the organization does most of its backups directly to tape. The center operates six Sun Microsystems StorageTek PowderHorn tape silos, which it manages as a single library.

Moore said tape still maintains a cost advantage over disk despite declining disk prices. “For long-term storage, it continues to be a lower cost per byte,” he said, adding that tape’s price tag can beat the price of Serial ATA disk by a factor of 4 or 5.

“When you have the volumes that we do, that makes a big difference,” Moore added.

Similarly, Rosen said NIAMS uses tape primarily for backup, with three IBM tape libraries doing the job. He cited portability as tape’s big advantage. “You can pick it up and take it somewhere else,” he said.

In addition to backup, tape also continues to play a role in mainframe processing. “Certain jobs kick out code that needs to be written to tape,” Schilbach said.

Enterprise tape developments
Tape technology covers a spectrum from entry-level products for small offices and individuals to enterprise tape drives for mainframes. A vast midrange market lies in between. Formats vary from segment to segment.

Across the board, vendors aim to keep tape adherents in their respective camps by providing regular upgrades in capacity and performance.

At the mainframe-class level, which features tape drives that cost more than $30,000, IBM and Sun — via its acquisition of StorageTek — are the primary tape suppliers. The trend in this sector is toward bigger and faster drives. IBM and Sun introduced tape drives last fall that push capacity to 1 terabyte on a single cartridge.

IBM’s TS1120 tape drive uses 500G cartridges that the company said can offer as much as 1.5 terabytes of capacity with data compression. The mainframe environment may provide compression ratios of 3-to-1, according to IBM.

The tape drive offers a native, or uncompressed, data transfer rate as fast as 100 megabytes/sec.

In comparison, the TS1120’s predecessor model offers 300G of native capacity and a native data transfer rate of 40 megabytes/sec.

Sun’s T10000 enterprise tape drive, meanwhile, features native capacity of 500G uncompressed or 1 terabyte compressed on each cartridge. The product has a native data transfer rate of 120 megabytes/sec.

The San Diego Supercomputer Center is moving to the next-generation of high-end tape drives. The center has been using Sun T9940B tape drives with a native capacity of 200G, but it will upgrade to a tape drive with 500G of native capacity, said Moore, who declined to identify the vendor.

The tape drive upgrade will help propel the center’s tape storage capacity from 6 to 18 petabytes. The center stores 3 petabytes of data in its tape library. Moore said the center typically doubles its storage volume every 14 to 15 months. Much of the center’s archived data represents the output of computer simulations.

“We needed to upgrade to the next generation of tape drives because we would soon be hitting the limit of our capacity,” Moore said, adding that he expects the center’s new tape drives to be in production later this month.

Midrange expansion
The midrange tape market offers its own brand of innovation. Some market watchers refer to this segment as open systems, which — in tape industry terms — refers to server platforms other than mainframes. In this sector, so-called super drives mark vendors’ efforts to boost tape’s capacity.

Freeman Reports predicts that super drives, which the company defines as drives with a native capacity of 100G or more, will lead the way in the growth of the compact tape market. Super drives accounted for 63 percent of compact tape revenue in 2004 and will represent 79 percent of revenue in 2010, according to the market watcher. Freeman Reports has not yet released tape market data for 2005.

Sony, for example, offers super drives as part of its Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT) product line. The company’s Super AIT drive provides 500G of native capacity and a native data transfer rate of 30 megabytes/sec. Sony’s AIT-3 and AIT-4 drives offer 100G or more of native capacity. The company’s AIT-5 drives, with 400G of native capacity, will probably debut in the fall, said Alan Sund, general manager for tape storage solutions at Sony Electronics’ Component and Business Solutions Division.

“The archival side is probably the growing side of the [tape] business, and part of that is driven by compliance issues,” Sund said.

Quantum, maker of the Digital Linear Tape (DLT) format, offers Super DLT products with 160G and 300G of native capacity. The company’s DLT-S4 drive, introduced in March, offers 800G of native capacity and 1.6 terabytes of capacity with compression, Quantum officials said.

Shane Jackson, Quantum’s director of enterprise product marketing, said products such as DLT-S4 fit the needs of customers who perform initial backups to disk and then migrate data to tape for longer-term archiving and disaster recovery. Capacity becomes the major consideration in such environments, he added.

Linear Tape-Open (LTO) provides another option in the midrange, open systems market, and industry analysts and consultants indicate that it is getting the most attention from customers. LTO drives garnered a 71 percent share of super drive shipments in 2004, according to Freeman Reports. Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Certance — now part of Quantum — developed LTO.

LTO 3, the latest LTO generation, provides as much as 400G of native capacity and a native data transfer rate of 80 megabytes/sec. LTO 4 will provide 800G of native capacity — 1.6 terabytes compressed — and a native data transfer speed of 120 megabytes/sec.

The LTO Program plans to release LTO 4 drive specifications later this year with the first products shipping soon after that.

Fish said she recommends LTO about 90 percent of the time.

“It’s quickly becoming the standard,” she said.

The development of LTO through a consortium, as opposed to a single company, and a long-term product road map boost customers’ confidence in the platform, Fish said.

“Its speed and capacity numbers continue to lead the marketplace,” she added.

The LTO Program has plans for at least two generations of the technology beyond LTO 4.

Vendors of other tape formats are hedging their bets by adding LTO to their product rosters. Quantum, for one, positions its DLT-S4 as a capacity play and emphasizes performance with its LTO solutions.

Overall, “performance and capacity are going up quite steeply in terms of tape drive technology,” Jackson said, adding that the increase is moving much faster in tape than disk.

Tape vendors aim to maintain that edge to remain viable.

Click here to enlarge chart(.pdf).

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New options at the low end

Digital Audio Tape (DAT) drives have dominated the entry-level tape drive market, but the technology faces challenges and some new competitors.

DAT drives, which conform to the Digital Data Storage (DDS) standard, belong to the desktop computer and entry-level server segment, a shrinking market. Freeman Reports noted a 19 percent drop in units shipped between 2003 and 2004, from 1.61 million devices to 1.3 million devices. The market research firm attributed the drop to the industry’s shift from backing up desktop computers to backing up networks, which calls for products with larger capacities.

At the same time, alternative technologies are edging out entry-level tape. “At the very low end, you have people moving toward some of the new optical technologies,” said Alan Sund, general manager for tape storage solutions at Sony Electronics’ Component and Business Solutions Division. “On a consumer level, people find DVD capacity is sufficient,” he said, adding that lower-cost external hard-drive solutions may also unseat tape in the low-end backup market.

On the other hand, Sony tape solutions have been successful in the 50G to 80G range. Sund said the company’s Advanced Intelligence Tape (AIT) Turbo product, which targets that range, has experienced faster sales growth than any previous generation of AIT technology.

Exabyte, meanwhile, is going after the DAT market with its VXA technology. The company recently introduced its VXA-320 line, which offers 160G of native capacity and a native data transfer rate of 12 megabytes/sec. DAT 72, the current DDS technology, offers 36G of native capacity and a 3 megabytes/sec native data transfer rate.

“We believe DDS technology is facing a lot of challenges in order to bring out new products,” said Kelly Beavers, vice president of product marketing at Exabyte.

“VXA is attempting to be a good replacement for DAT,” said Curtis Preston, vice president of data protection at GlassHouse Technologies, a storage consulting firm.

Spotlight shines on tape encryption

The typically anonymous backup tape has become a newsmaker in the past 18 months.

Tapes in transit to backup facilities have gone missing, with companies such as Citigroup and Time Warner among those experiencing losses. Such examples have led information technology managers to consider encryption for protecting the data stored on tape.

“I know a lot of people are looking at encryption,” said Robert Rosen, president of Share, an IBM user group, and chief information officer at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).

Organizations view encryption with trepidation, despite the security benefits. Considerations include the effect on backup windows, cost and key management — the job of storing and protecting the digital keys that unlock encrypted data.

There are two general approaches to encryption. Software-based encryption is slower than its hardware counterpart, industry consultants say. “It’s pretty rough on the network…and can really increase the backup times,” said Kelly Fish, a storage specialist at CDW.

“Most people want hardware encryption because of the speed issue,” Rosen said.

But with speed comes expense. Fish said most initial implementations will cost between $20,000 and $40,000. NeoScale and Network Appliance’s Decru business unit are among the companies that provide encryption appliances.

Encryption using software such as Symantec’s Veritas NetBackup is generally less expensive. Fish said most software-based encryption is priced on a per-server and per-client licensing basis, with server prices from $600 to $800 and client prices from $200 to $350.

Certain circumstances can alter the cost differential. A customer using Veritas Backup Exec, for example, would need to upgrade to NetBackup to do encryption because Backup Exec lacks an encryption module, Fish said. An organization that has to pursue an upgrade and purchase an encryption module may find its encryption choice a tossup in terms of cost.

Finally, key management presents a challenge to the uninitiated.

“Encryption is not a trivial thing to do, because once you start getting into encryption, you start getting into key management,” Rosen said.

Curtis Preston, vice president of data protection at GlassHouse Technologies, said a sophisticated key management system is a critical part of tape encryption. “If you screw up the keys, you’ve lost the data,” he said.

Lending a robotic hand

Tape automation products house a number of cartridges and use a robotic device to place a tape in a drive. They spare information technology shops the need to have someone on hand to swap a new cartridge into a drive during a big overnight backup job or to manually load a particular cartridge to restore a user’s lost data.

Products range from autoloaders, which typically hold seven to 10 cartridges, to enterprise tape libraries, which manage thousands of cartridges. Entry-level and midsize tape libraries round out the spectrum of offerings.

At the entry level, a trend is greater affordability. Linear Tape-Open (LTO) autoloaders equipped with remote management features and bar code readers to keep track of cartridges cost about $9,000 two years ago, industry executives say.

Today, the price is about $4,000 to $5,000, said Kelly Fish, a storage specialist at CDW. Customers who think they can’t afford autoloaders for remote office backup should reconsider, she said.

Exabyte, for one, offers a seven-cartridge autoloader with prices starting at less than $3,749 for LTO 2 tape and less than $4,749 for LTO 3 tape. The product ships with a bar code reader and remote management as standard components. The company launched an entry-level LTO 2 tape library last month for an estimated price of $4,600. The product, geared toward small businesses and departmental use, houses 12 cartridges.

Kelly Beavers, vice president of product marketing at Exabyte, said such products target a market segment that previously hasn’t been able to afford automation.

Improved diagnostics mark a salient development among larger tape libraries. ADIC, for example, cultivated diagnostic features on its enterprise tape libraries, which have filtered down to its midrange products, such as the Scalar i500, company executives say.

ADIC tape libraries provide proactive monitoring and relational diagnostics to boost backup reliability, the company said. The monitoring technology notifies administrators of fault conditions before problems occur. A tape library will signal when a cleaning cartridge is about to expire, for example. If a cleaning cartridge expired unexpectedly, cleaning operations could be abruptly interrupted, perhaps at an inconvenient time.

Features that improve reliability are particularly important because of the more intensive use of tape systems, said Dave Kenyon, director of enterprise tape automation at Sun Microsystems’ Data Management Group.

As customers consolidate storage on fewer devices, those devices need to work harder and last longer, Kenyon said. “We’ve seen a lot of innovation around the reliability of the products,” he said.

The availability of encryption is another tape library development.

Spectra Logic offers two encryption-enabled libraries: the enterprise T950 and the midrange T120. The libraries encrypt data as it backs up to tape.

Brian Grainger, federal sales director at Spectra Logic, said he anticipates the tape libraries will receive Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 certification this summer.

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