Tape suppliers struggle with disk for recession revenue

Tape suppliers struggle for revenue against disk's decreasing cost per gigabyte. Try to transition their tape protection expertise and plan for growth once the recession is over.

Organizations always need to get the most out of their data storage budgets. But during the current recession, tape suppliers find themselves struggling for revenue against disk's decreasing cost per gigabyte. Disk also allows offsite vaulting, faster restores and simpler legal compliance at a lower cost than tape. Sure, tape is "greener" than disk, but stacked against the advantages of disk as a backup target, so what? Tape drive and tape library vendors know they have to transition their tape protection expertise to data belonging to virtual machines stored on disk. They also have to differentiate their offerings so they improve on the general-purpose data storage array with a virtual tape library (VTL) wrapping, such as those from EMC and NetApp. And they have to differentiate themselves from deduplicating disk array vendors, such as Data Domain, ExaGrid and Sepaton.

The tape library is letting general and deduplication storage array vendors walk all over them.
However, the tape library industry is letting general and deduplication storage array vendors walk all over them. It has consolidated formats to just DAT tape and LTO tape, and consolidated suppliers; but the three main standalone tape vendors -- Overland Storage, Quantum and Tandberg Data -- are in varying degrees of trouble.

When considering other tape suppliers, no one would be surprised if Sony exited the tape scene. IBM's tape products are insulated from the general tape market behind the mainframe stockade, as are Sun Microsystems' StorageTek libraries (Sun is being acquired by Oracle). Both suppliers have embraced the virtual tape library idea of a disk array mimicking a tape library and have replication products, so the mainframe tape market will probably follow the mainstream tape market into oblivion in the next few years.

In the low-end tape market, where DAT tape rules supreme, RDX removable disks are making progress as are low-end, shared network filers that do backups and have cloud backup extensions from suppliers such as Iomega and LaCie. Let's face it: The death of DAT tape is coming and managing its decline is the only way to profit from that outcome, which is what Hewlett-Packard appears to be doing.

For the mainstream LTO-focused tape market, the overarching strategy has been to add a disk-based VTL and position it as part of a disk-to-disk-to-tape (D2D2T) strategy. Replication has blown a hole in that idea, particularly when replication is used to transmit only changed bytes from a deduplicated virtual tape library to a remote VTL, lowering network transmission costs. The future is disk-to-disk (D2D), not disk-to-disk-to-tape.

Tape vendors try to weather recession, plan for growth

Spectra Logic is a 30-year-old company that has more than 20,000 customers, approximately 330 staff and appears to be doing well. It has embraced the disk-based VTL and replication era with its nTier products and doesn't seem to have the financial problems that bedevil its three publicly quoted competitors.

On the other hand, Overland Storage, Quantum and Tandberg Data are experiencing a fall in tape product revenue that's faster than their rising disk product revenue. In addition, Overland Storage and Tandberg Data are recovering from dreadful management eras, and Quantum has a largish mountain of debt.

Overland Storage is working to recover from lousy management and acquisition decisions under a previous CEO. The company has had to twist and turn financially, and negotiate financing deals with suppliers and factoring companies so it could continue operating and developing products while cutting costs during these tough economic times. Vern LoForti and now Eric Kelly have grappled with the problems of cutting the company's cost structure and operating more efficiently while still keeping up with product developments.

Under LoForti's CEO-ship the company bought the Snap Server network-attached storage (NAS) product division from Adaptec and is taking the Snap product line into the steadily growing video surveillance market. Overland Storage has continued to develop its NEO tape products, and its REO and Ultamus disk-based products. The company hopes it has done what's required to weather the recession and then grow and throw off its loss-making years.

Tandberg Data has survived a near bankruptcy -- again helped by poor management -- and then an actual one, and recently became a private company again. It has a manufacturing deal for the RDX removable disk technology with several OEM wins. Tandberg has just announced its own virtual tape library product line positioned in the D2D2T space, but with deduplication and replication capabilities ahead. Like Overland Storage, Tandberg Data hopes that its loyal channel will help see the company through the recession when it hopes to start flying high again.

Quantum is in much better shape, though still loss-making. When it bought ADIC some time ago, using debt to do so, it bought a deduplication technology that's now used in its DXi-Series disk-based protection line. In turn, Quantum has licensed this technology to EMC and Dell, and EMC is so taken with the technology that it has helped Quantum financially.

Now Quantum is hoping that it too has done enough to get through the recession and, with help from Dell and EMC royalties, take wing.

Tape technology may be a turkey in the eyes of disk users, but tape protection vendors believe they can make a profit from a slowly declining tape market while transitioning to new roles as disk-based protection vendors.

But the question remains: Does the data storage market need separate categories of external-attached, general-purpose, storage array vendors (Compellent, DataDirect Technologies, EMC, Isilon, NetApp, Pillar Data Systems, 3PAR, Xiotech), deduplicating array vendors (Data Domain, ExaGrid, Sepaton) and data protection array vendors (Overland Storage, Quantum, Spectra Logic, Tandberg Data)? Surely, some product strategists are beginning to think, these are just personality features on a common storage array platform.

With quad-core Intel Xeon processors (5400s now and 5500s tomorrow), as well as six- and eight-cores in prospect, there'll be so much processing headroom that platforms with multiple, simultaneous personalities will be possible, along with partitioned sections in the storage shelves for different storage needs.

But that's another matter entirely. What tape vendors are saying now is "Let's just get through this recession, get our businesses in order and generate steady profits. Then we can think longer term again." They know nothing is forever in storage.

Chris Mellor is the storage editor at The Register.

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