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Disk vs. tape: disk will win over time. (Technology Arena Disk vs. Tape).

Long ago, with the release of hard disk drive media, business leaders, technologists and the media declared that disks would eventually replace tape in every possible application and environment. It wouldn't take long because, very simply stated, hard disk chive systems were faster, easier to maintain and provide random access. Yet while these benefits do exist, to date disks have not replaced tape--at least not to the extent that was predicted.

The reality is, while hard disk media has been wildly successful, the replacement of tape-based systems with disk-based ones is taking a lot longer than expected. One formidable reason for this is that the cost of tape media has always been lower than that of disk drives. Thus, the business decision to switch to a more robust disk-based solution is outweighed by the, ultimately, cheaper cost of the tape media.

There are other reasons as well, yet I believe that the conversion is taking place. Perhaps not in a high-profile way right now, but it is happening. You just have to look. From what I see, the beginnings of massive change are upon us.

Of course it's easy for me to have a strong belief that disk will replace tape since our company motto is, "replace tape with disk." But that's our business strategy. Moreover, we've been lucky enough to find an area where disk can replace tape: high-speed data recording. Our belief, therefore, is based upon actual sales revenue that we generate by promoting a tape replacement technology.

But is our experience proof enough to proclaim that tape media will eventually go away? You have only to believe in the history of technology and innovation to say "yes." It then becomes simply a matter of time.

Analogous with all sweeping changes in culture and society, technological change occurs when enough momentum builds up so as to eliminate any chance of stopping the change. Technological history shows that this starts with one marketplace at a time. When discussing the replacement of tape with hard disk drives, what we find is that eventually the newer disk-based technology works its way into a community that traditionally has relied upon tape. The momentum begins when this community decides to make a change.

In our case, that community is within the scientific research marketplace--specifically, the worldwide radio astronomy community. This is a perfect marketplace to begin with for the following reasons: it is full of brilliant minds; they are consistently at the leading edge of technology adoption; and, while they have money to spend, they also have a mandate to make the best use of their funding.

For years, the radio astronomers have exclusively used instrumentation tape recorders manufactured by AMPEX, Metrum-Datatape, Sony, and others. These recorders are at the extreme high-end of tape-based solutions and the user group is mostly confined to military, government and scientific research entities. While the recorders themselves are quite expensive to purchase, the cost of the tape media has always been relatively cheap. However, as these machines age, the costs to maintain them have skyrocketed and replacement parts have become scarce. The leaders of the community decided to begin looking for the next generation alternative solution.

After an extensive search by multiple parties within the community, a general conclusion was made: They must consider switching to a newer disk-based solution. The reason behind this was surprising, and historical. It turned out that a pricing shift had occurred. For the very first time, the cost of disk drive media per gigabyte was actually less expensive than the comparable 1-inch wide, instrumentation-grade tape media. They found savings of 75 percent or more. With the old financial argument of more affordable tape no longer being valid, the economical factors to switch to disk-based recording became quite compelling.

Now, while our disk-based solution wasn't the perfect replacement initially, the leaders of the community decided to take a risk. If it worked, they would not only be saving valuable dollars themselves, but they would open up the technology to many more institutions worldwide that previously had not been able to participate because of the extreme costs related to the tape decks. So, they adopted the new technology and worked to have the new technology perform essentially the same way as the old technology, but with all of the additional benefits of disk. With the money they saved not having to purchase more expensive equipment, they funded the development necessary to have the disk-based product become a more robust solution. Indeed, they became the classic technology champion. When completed, they championed the effort--both theirs and ours--and helped the new technology gain acceptance among their colleagues.

In many ways, this story exemplifies Geoffrey Moore's model: The Technology Adoption Life Cycle. In his book, "Crossing the Chasm," he describes how high-tech companies and their technologies gain acceptance--first with technology innovators and early adopters, followed by an early majority and soon. What we've seen is that, with the help of our early innovators, the radio astronomy community, we are now selling our disk-based recorders to a wider community that now includes a strong customer base in the military.

But, we're taking one step at a time. While tape-based solutions are being replaced at the extreme high-end, tape is firmly entrenched at the next step down--Enterprise IT. The next question becomes: Will high-speed disk technologies of today follow the traditional path of other high-end technologies and ultimately trickle down through the marketplaces? Yes.

Now that we have a solid, albeit small, customer base we've been able to get a clearer picture of what markets to logically explore next. And why not mention that the more solid the customer base is, the more willing other markets are to consider switching. Thankfully, sales beget sales. Equally important for us is that we continue to gain crisper knowledge of the concerns and desires of established tape users.

The new technology currently in use in high-end recording and playback environs is easily adapted to disaster recovery and other back-up applications. The latest ultra-fast technologies offer maintenance-free, random access to files; there are no tape heads to realign or replace and no cumbersome rewinding or fast-forwarding. One of the most important features, speed, is achieved by bypassing the normal bottlenecks of the system--system memory, CPU involvement, operating system and the file system--thus freeing it for other work. There's certainly more to be done, but it is clear that there's both interest and desire to "find a better way." Just give it some time.

www.conduant.com

Mark Walker is vice president of sales and marketing at Conduant Corporation (Longmont, Colo.)
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Author:Walker, Mark
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Words:1098
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