Spectrum Data shoots for the stars

In Part Two of our profile of Perth storage leader Spectrum Data, Simon Sharwood learns how about the work the company is performing for NASA.

One of the benefits of Spectrum Data's conversion services is that modern tape cartridges are a fraction of the size of their reel-to-reel forebears, saving customers valuable physical storage space. That means Spectrum's outbound stock area is a good deal smaller than the space it sets aside for incoming tapes, which arrive by the pallet-load and dominate large swathes of its building.

What appears to the visitor's eye to be a pile of old tape is not, however, in any way haphazard. Spectrum barcodes and databases media to within an inch of its life, so much so that it has also created a secure vault for tapes its clients wish stored under the safest possible conditions.

The resulting store room is lined with thousands of tapes and protected by environmental control systems that can snuff out fires almost before they start.

Fly me to the moon

Among the tapes in this room are reels from NASA, which has famously asked the company to examine old tapes in the hope they contain original footage of Apollo 11's moon landing. On the day we visit, Veale is only able to show us NASA tapes of experiments conducted during Apollo missions

The majority of tapes in the room come from mining companies, who are the most frequent customer for the company's services thanks to Australian laws requiring holders of oil and mineral exploration licenses to place the survey data they collect into the public domain. More often than not those surveys were stored on many, many old tapes, which were usually ignored after initial analysis helped miners decide whether or not to dig, drill or blast.

Today, however, those tapes are valuable once again. Faster computers and more sophisticated analysis techniques mean they can now be "e-prospected" by those eager to cash in on the minerals boom, meaning old tapes can yield new targets for exploration.

With China and India clamoring for resources, mining companies are therefore revisiting these old tapes so they can re-examine the surveys of decades past.

An export leader

But to do so, they need expertise like Spectrum's. Few other companies on the planet possess working TI-961s to other older tape drives, never mind the expertise to make them work.

Spectrum's capabilities are therefore in global demand.

"The Japanese government chartered a 747-load to bring us tapes to process," Veale says proudly. The company is also in demand across the Middle East, recently won a contract from the Ethiopian Government and has undertaken work in Sri Lanka. Agents in the USA, Indonesia and Japan are finding these markets offer new possibilities and new offices are springing up around Australia.

The company is also taking steps to diversify its business, having recently established a consumer-focused data recovery service in Perth. Equipped with the only clean room providing such services in Perth, the service is already tackling jobs as diverse as recovering data from USB flash memory sticks or dealing with brick-sized hard drives of early 1990s vintage.

This effort is part of the company's plan to diversify beyond the oil and gas industries. Indeed, Veale recognises that these industries will continue to be a strong source of work, they will one day exhaust their supply of old tapes. The company is therefore pursuing governments and other industries as it continues to expand.

And Veale is confident that expansion will continue.

"The likes of IBM may have the hardware, but they do not provide the end to end service that we do," he says. "Full service is an important differentiator for us."

The ancient tape drives whirling away in the company's data center help too, and so does the fact the company really has learned what makes them tick.

"For 9-track tape, we achieve 99% recovery," Veale says. "We hope that speaks for itself."

Read more on Storage management and strategy