Tale of the tape

The amount of information that large enterprises are collecting and storingis increasing exponentially, probably doubling each year. And few organizationsare struggling with this chart-busting growth as much as the federal government.That's because of factors such as the mandated push to the paperless office,the huge rise in e-mail use and, of course, file downloads from the Internet.

Fortunately, magnetic tape vendors are responding in full measure. Becausetape is much less expensive gigabyte for gigabyte than magnetic disk, itis by far the medium of choice to store backup, archival and rarely useddata.

Though hardly the center of attention in the high-tech world, tape manufacturershave kept pace by churning out a stream of performance improvements. Mostnow have well-charted plans to double product capacity and performance everytwo years. What's more, two new technologies have now entered the enterprisetape marketplace: Linear Tape Open (LTO) Ultrium-1 and VXAtape.

For federal agencies, the rapid market movement is a mixed blessing.It's easy enough to move up into the latest and greatest version of a product,because most manufacturers guarantee backward compatibility with previousiterations. But converting to a new tape technology can be time-consumingand costly no matter what the business benefits. Federal agencies — especiallythose that deal in reams of mission-critical data and are already heavilyinvested in one technology — are likely to take a more conservative approach,according to observers.

For example, the Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center,a U.S. Geological Survey field office in Sioux Falls, S.D., plans to continuewith Digital Linear Tape, a technology it has used for four years to archivesatellite images — though it is now investigating LTO and other products.

"On paper, LTO sounds very promising," said John Faundeen, chief ofarchive and information management for the EROS Data Center. "But we haveno expectations of even considering converting to a new technology for atleast another couple of years. We only implement the things that are verywell proven, simply because it is so costly for us to migrate to somethingnew."

Still, for those agencies that have outgrown their current storage mediaand are considering a move, there's plenty from which to choose.

Digital Linear Tape

Quantum Corp. thinks so highly of its next generation of DLTtape Systems— a format that has thoroughly dominated the midrange magnetic tape marketfor the past four years — that it is dispensing with traditional numberedproduct versions in favor of a spelled-out superlative. The follow-on versionof DLT 8000 has been dubbed Super DLT, with good reason. The product, whichsports 110G of storage space and can read and write data at 11 megabytes/sec,offers three times the capacity and double the performance of its predecessorand aims to meet mainframe- level backup needs. It began shipping in September.

"With our previous seven generations of product, there were incrementalimprovements but the platforms looked very similar from generation to generation,"said Phil Treide, Quantum's manager of product marketing for Super DLT."This new product is in many ways a clean sheet of paper because we're puttingin a lot of fundamental new technologies that will take us to 1 tera-byteof capacity per cartridge within three generations."

Linear Tape Open

Is there room in the market for a new tape technology? Executives atHewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Seagate Technology Inc. are confidentthere is. The companies, along with manufacturer Fuji Photo Film Inc., eachoffered their own best-of-breed technologies and created LTO Ultrium-1,a 100G per tape technology that will compete head-to-head with Super DLTfor the mid- to high-end tape business. LTO began shipping in fall 2000.

The biggest difference between LTO and Super DLT? Openness, said JackTrautman, general manager for the data protection business within HP's networkstorage solutions organization. At the moment, the two technologies arecomparable in performance and capacity, he said.

But because several companies will manufacture LTO, competition will drivedown price and time-to-market. It will also spark greater performance andinnovative features, such as the already unveiled cartridge memory — anidentification and tracking mechanism — and data rate matching, a tool thatmatches the recording speed to that of the material.

"You can pick up any dimension and it's pretty obvious that in an open competition,multi-vendor environment, you drive business results much more in favorof the end user," Trautman said.

Another difference with Ultrium is its tape height, coming in at 0.8inches rather than the traditional 1 inch. This will allow library manufacturersto put 20 percent more cartridges in a given form factor than they can withSuper DLT. The long-term plan is for LTO technology to top 800G per cartridgein its fourth generation.

Competing against Super DLT, which has the advantages of an installedbase and backward read compatibility with DLT systems, will not be easy.But Trautman hopes that LTO will capture 20 percent of the market withina year. Although he expects that customers with a preference for HP, IBMand Seagate will quickly latch on to the product, LTO Ultrium-1 will specificallytarget enterprise data centers, Internet data centers, storage service providersand other large IT centers with demanding needs for backup and recovery.

Mammoth

Exabyte Corp.'s 8mm tape product once dominated the market like Quantum'sDLT does now. But when reliability issues surfaced along with market introductionhiccups on a succeeding product, the company quickly lost its hold on marketshare. Today, Exabyte is making amends with MammothTape, the first helicalscan product built from the ground up for data applications.

"Eight millimeter, like some other tape technologies, was based on theconsumer camcorder design and was not as adept at the kind of heavy-dutycycles data storage requires," said Ken Cruden, Exabyte's director of storagemedia. "We built Mammoth from the ground up, and the whole structure ofthe drive is ruggedized and designed for heavy-duty use."Mammoth-2, which was released in early 2000, is a much stronger iterationthan the first Mammoth release, he said, offering up to four times the capacityand performance. In addition, a larger scanner than typically found in helicalscan drives allows greater recording speed and density, a fundamental thatwill come in to play with future generations. Cruden predicts, for example,that Mammoth-5 — not expected to appear for at least five years — will offera 400G capacity and data transfer speeds of 30 megabytes/sec.

Advanced Intelligent Tape

At first glance, capacity and performance can be misleading with AIT-3,which Sony Electronics Inc. released in September. The technology offers100G of storage space and reads and writes to tape at 11 megabytes/sec.But with a 2.6-to-1 compression rate — the highest in its product class— users see a stratospheric 260G capacity and 28 megabytes/ sec transferrate. "We've got a road map to double capacity and speed every two years,and with this product we continue to achieve that," said Tom Evans, vicepresident of marketing for Sony Electronics' Media Solutions Company.

Such accomplishments are possible through AIT's use of Advanced MetalEvaporated media, which uses a non- contact smart card technology that enhancesaccess to data formats, and Sony's patented HyperMetal recording head design,which doubles track density. Evans said that despite its strong performance,AIT-3 is more affordable than direct competitors — the system is expectedto retail for about $4,500, a figure likely to be attractive to cost-consciousgovernment buyers. Agencies already using AIT technology include the Navy,the FBI and the departments of Treasury and State.

VXA

End users who can't afford to ever lose a byte of data will appreciateVXAtape, a relatively new product from Ecrix Corp. The company doesn't justtest its product for durability, it torture-tests it. "We boil our cartridgesin water, spill coffee on them, freeze them," said Juan Rodriguez, chairmanand chief executive officer of Ecrix. "They can stand up to just about anything.Our end-user customers just love it."

Indeed, VXA, which hit the market in May 1999 and is being sold in the governmentmarket by GTSI Corp., among others, stands out from all other tape technologiesin its design. Data is saved in individually addressed packets rather thanlong data tracks, so that even if the data is distorted or the tape trackis warped, the system can still put it all back together in order. Ecrixguarantees a 100 percent recovery rate. What's more, because there are nohead-to-track alignment issues, it requires fewer mechanical parts and canbe produced at a lower cost; a VXA system starts at just $899.

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reachedat hbhayes@cfw.com.

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