Stretching the tape

Far from becoming an obsolete means of storage, the tape industry is celebrating its 50th anniversary and looks to be going from...

Far from becoming an obsolete means of storage, the tape industry is celebrating its 50th anniversary and looks to be going from strength to strength thanks to the impending arrival of terabyte and an increased awareness of the advantages of backing up

Last month included a very special date for those in the tape industry. Not quite overshadowing the forthcoming gold-tinged celebrations, there were a few remembering 21 May 1952, when IBM launched the first tape drive offering 1.4Mb.

Fifty years on and tape is still going strong, proving wrong those critics who sniped at the technology over the years, claiming it was facing extinction. There are more reasons than ever to buy tape, and far from getting ready to retire, the storage format is proving as vital as ever.

"It will be around in another 50 years. I won't be there to see it, but tape will keep going," says Danny McKissock, Emea manager for high-end tape at IBM.

Big Blue celebrated the 50th birthday by holding a storage forum where it outlined its roadmap to deliver a terabyte tape to customers in the next few years. A terabyte on a cartridge, probably unthinkable to the original tape pioneers at 3M and IBM, should arrive in a couple of product generations.

"Over the years, there will be stages with 200-400Gb, then 400-600Gb and the next one after that is a terabyte," he says.

IBM is not the only vendor working on getting to a terabyte - Quantum should get there as well. The exact timetable on that process differs depending on which vendor you speak to, but there are widespread expectations that terabyte tape will arrive in the next three years.

In the meantime, the market is still demanding products that improve automation and enable centralisation. One of the consequences of the 11 September tragedy is that awareness about backing up is high and there are many firms trying to reduce possible problems at branch level by centralising tape libraries.

Bowing to financial pressure
The majority of customers so far have been financial. Pressure from the Financial Services Authority has forced firms to prove they have secure back-up procedures in place and leaving a tape drive in the hands of a single member of staff in a branch office is no longer an option.

"If you look at the types of customers we have, by and large they are driven by regularity and they have to be able to demonstrate they have recovery procedures in place and you have to have tape," says Paul Hammond, vice president of professional services at Bi-Tech.

"There are lots of people with distributed tape who want to move to a centralised system and are asking 'so how do we do that?'" he adds.

Those questions can be answered with the help of a reseller and the potential for tape business remains strong. Admittedly, there are not so many of the stonking orders that would set a dealer up for the financial year, but those large libraries still need servicing and that business is there for the taking.

"People normally only ever add tape and the dealer can end up with repeat business [which is significant] even if it is not as much as the original order," adds Hammond. "We don't come across prospects that don't want to talk about tape."

Part of the reason tape is such an attractive conversation starter is because it is cheaper than other products and can offer increasing capacity without hassle.

"Because SAN environments are still not fully understood, require highly skilled IT resources and are deemed expensive, it is difficult for some small to medium-sized companies to entertain such a solution. The benefit of the lower-cost network-attached data storage is the simplicity it can offer when expanding capacity and its ease of management," says Will Trotman, product manager at Sony CNCE Marketing.

"When the network-attached concept is applied to data back-up, the result is a simple, central, network data protection. These types of products will dramatically reduce the time, trouble and costs associated with protecting businesses and appeal to the board-level decision-makers and those on the ground," he adds.

The positive reports from the coalface are echoed in the industry and current estimates put annual growth between 10 and 20 per cent. Growth in data is believed to be growing at a minimum of 100 per cent a year, giving an idea of the pressures firms are facing.

Advantages of tape over disk
Because of the current economic situation, orders are not coming straight through to dealers but are delayed because of the time it takes for orders to get signed off, but there is still business around and projects are still being started. Because of the cost advantages of choosing tape compared with optical disk, interest in tape has grown and once the economic obstacles to ordering are removed there should be a minor explosion in sales.

"There is pent up growth and we are seeing significant developing business as well as obvious areas of legislation that mean some firms have to keep data for a minimum of seven years," says Richard Collins, managing director for Quantum Europe SSG.

Apart from automation and centralisation, the other demand is for libraries that can be easily accessed from the front and back and do not take up much room. Space has become an issue and is being used by some as a selling point.

"We've looked at design and have been listening to the messages from customers and in the typical technical environment you have rows of libraries and servers and you will want to access the front and the back," adds Collins.

For those being given pricing on the square footage they use, the ability to reduce the space they take up with tape libraries is a selling point.

The format debate
"Footprint is important because of the price of housing data per square metre. We were meeting with a pharmaceutical IT director the other day and he was being charged £2,500 annually internally for the space his IT equipment took up," says a source.

The other issue is the format debate. DLT, SDLT and LTO all have their supporters and the consensus seems to be that the market can sustain those formats and multiple vendors at the moment, but inevitably there will be more consolidation.

"We would predict a polarisation of formats, with lower-capacity 4mm and 8mm types declining, while the two main rival drive formats - Quantum's DLTIV/Super DLT and the rival LTO - slog it out to take the lion's share of the market for high-capacity storage," says Roger Moore, strategic business manager of recording media at Fuji.

One source sums up the state of play with the different formats by arguing both have pluses and minuses: "DLT has more capacity but LTO is faster. Both have multiple sources, but Quantum was late bringing SuperDLT to market and lost market share to LTO."

Other formats causing interest include AIT3, which is offering high density on small tapes. Sony's AIT has been given a boost in the US by getting the backing from the financial regulator that it is equivalent to a 12in optical disk "and therefore suitable for use in US financial institutions".

In terms of the future there are mixed views. McKissock believes tape will be celebrating its 100th birthday and others agree, but the use it will have is not so clearly defined.

"If you look at the weather centre with all that data and hospitals putting things like x-ray on tape, you can see it is going to be around for a long time in an archive mode and could be there in 50 years' time," says Howard Rippiner, Emea marketing manager at Overland Data Systems.

The archive side of the business is creating a large amount of interest because of the impact of legislation and the need to house information for many years. "When they have got to look at those requirements, customers are looking at tape," adds the source.

Despite that, don't expect the critics to go away any time soon. Those arguing that tape is on its last legs have been saying so constantly for the last five years. Although they have become more silent in the last couple of years, some still hold that view.

"It's funny because you never hear the tape community slagging off other technologies to the extent that they believe a technology is dying. The problem for tape's critics is that whenever a reseller gets into a conversation with a customer, tape is still a technology in demand," says another source.

For those dealers selling tape at the moment times are good and look set to continue if they can deliver automation and centralisation. Meeting that demand should make it a happy birthday year for those in the tape channel.

Further information

Worth celebrating
Fifty years ago, when IBM shipped the first commercial magnetic tape storage system, a tape drive stored 1.4Mb - equivalent to a floppy disk today - on a movie reel that measured more than 12in in diameter. Today, 1Tb of data - equivalent to continuously running DVD movies for 16 days, or 8,000 times more data than a human brain retains in a lifetime - can be held on a cartridge measuring just 4in wide by 5in long by 1in thick, which fits in the palm of your hand.

Linda Sanford, senior vice president and group executive of IBM Storage Systems Group, says: "When researchers in the IBM labs released their first commercially available magnetic tape storage device for information processing 50 years ago, they enabled the transition from punched card calculators to electronic computers. Our one terabyte initiative continues this history of innovation."

The main format contenders
LTO (Linear Tape-Open) is an open standard for a backup tape system, providing formats for fast data access and high storage capacity, developed jointly by Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Seagate. IBM released the first LTO products in August 2000.

DLT (digital linear tape) is a form of magnetic tape and drive system used for computer data storage and archiving. A special compression algorithm, known as Digital Lempel Ziv 1 (DLZ1), facilitates storage and retrieval of data at high speeds and in large quantities. A variant of DLT technology, called SuperDLT, makes it possible to store upwards of 100Gb on a single cartridge. The SuperDLT drive can transfer data at speeds of up to 10Mbps.

Mammoth is a magnetic tape and drive system used for computer data storage and archiving. The tapes measure 8mm across. A helical scanning technique is used to optimise the data transfer and storage rates.

AIT (advanced intelligent tape) is a magnetic tape and drive system used for computer data storage and archiving. The tapes measure 8mm across. A helical scanning technique, similar to that used in Mammoth drives, optimises the data transfer rate and the storage capacity.

Definition material sourced from

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