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Points Of Light Sparkling In Low End Tape.

Have you seen a musical comedy called Finian's Rainbow? In it, the leprechaun Og is known for punctuating statements with the wail: "Gloom and Doom!" Such is also the fate of discussing the low end tape market. The phrase "gloom and doom" has been dogging the footsteps of the low end tape market for some years. And while much of the wailing is justified, I think that there are a number of points of light in the darkness.

There was a time, and not too long ago, that IT management leaned in favor of Travan and DDS technologies due to their long histories and affordable price points. But DDS technology has hit the end of the development road. In a recent briefing, Sony formally announced what many have known for a long time: DDS-4 is the end of the line. Technology transition from DDS is a matter of when, not if. The storage giant is proposing its low-end AIT-1 as the DDS replacement technology of choice. And Travan...the technology is currently in the hands of Overland Data, and they have been very quiet about it. Overland was unready to discuss the status at press time.

The end of a technology lifecycle is an especially serious matter for the tape industry. The entire point of archival storage is the ability to recover data after a matter of weeks, months, or in some cases, years. Nothing would give an IT manager nightmares like a warehouse full of tapes that lack drives. The moral of the story is look beyond...look beyond price/performance, look beyond the quick fix...pick your technologies carefully. Those who see tape backup as an add-on or afterthought are asking for "gloom and doom."

One of the recent casualties of the tape industry is OnStream, which recently filed for protection under Chapter 7. The company had been promoting its ADR technology as a legacy replacement. The technology used an eight-channel array head that provided the ability to read/write eight channels at once. Any number of reasons can be hazarded for OnStream's plight. Competition in this area is severe, and any kind of weakness is fatal. Many tape companies live and die from OEM contracts, and OnStream missed out on the recent Compaq award, which went to Ecrix. But it is also true that unrealistic expectations can form the backdrop to chaos.

Actually, aggressive competition reaches well beyond just low-end tape. Some people are looking at Exabyte with questions. They are losing personnel, and are noised about as an acquisition candidate. The company offers a good product and a good management team. But it is arguable that competition from LTO technology and SuperDLT may be hammering the Mammoth like so many cavemen. It is also arguable that the company has never fully recovered from their lateness to market of the original Mammoth product. All of the good decisions that the company is making are emerging too slowly. Exabyte and its 8mm technology achieved high popularity because it came in at the right time, with the right product, at the right price. Timing continues to be crucial.

Glimmers Of Light

Recovering from the digression into the midrange, let's look at some of the points of light in low end tape. My observations are not meant to be exhaustive, or in any way all-encompassing.

Look at Tandberg Data first. The company has made several good decisions. On the one hand, their position as a second-source to Quantum's DLT tape lines is a good one. On the other hand, their own SLR technology has shipped 3 million drives and the company recently introduced a new member of the drive family. The new SLR7 tape drive stores up to 40GB of data and features a 21.6GB per hour (6MB per second) transfer rate (capacity and transfer rate assume 2:1 data compression). As with previous generation SLR tape drives, the SLR7 features a 5.25-inch half-height form factor. Imation's new SLR7 tape cartridge offers 40GB of compressed storage capacity

Everyone has a favorite indicator of potential success. My favorite in this space is OEM agreements. I have always felt that tape companies should have a stable OEM foundation, then build an aggressive channel organization. The next two companies I discuss follow that map.

One point of light is Benchmark Tape Systems, whose DLT1 is marketed as a DDS replacement, too. At press time, Benchmark has ongoing OEM agreements with server giants Dell and Hewlett-Packard. Benchmark's DLT1 is backward compatible with the popular DLT 4000, and the common DLT command set is interoperable with several software packages. It also offers 40GB of capacity, but this figure is native, not compressed. The native transfer rate is 3MB/sec.

The other point of light is Ecrix Corp. Evidently, tape industry veterans Juan Rodriguez and Kelly Beavers also know the crucial value of OEM agreements. Fujitsu, Apple, and, most recently, Compaq are VXA supporters. The Compaq win is a significant one; the company is notoriously picky when it comes to OEM commitments. VXA is the first tape technology to read and write data in packets. Packetizing opens up new modes of operation that the company claims lead to new levels of reliability and performance. Unlike any other tape drive, VXA can operate at variable speed. In effect, his eliminates the need for back-hitching. Not only does this feature aid in throughput, but results in less wear and tear on drives and media. VXA heads can read data from any physical location on the tape, without having to follow tracks from beginning to end. To me, this is as close to random access as tape will get.

And then there is Sony, always a point of light in research and development for tape technology. Their light is brighter than many, because it deals in realistic expectations and has shouldered its own marketing destiny. It was Sony's announcement that finally put DDS refugees out of their uncertainty, with the announcement of DDS migration. They report that a new generation DDS that offered 2X capacity and transfer rate would not be technically practical without a significant compromise in features and price point. There was some talk of an expansion to 35GB and 3MB/sec, but the business case for a short extended life couldn't be made.

Instead, Sony offers the AIT-1. Capacities are scalable right into the midrange, from 35GB to 100GB. Transfer rate is about 4MB/sec, and the form factor is the same as DDS-4. The newly-announced migration path reaches to AIT-6, and the migration is "endorsed" by Compaq, who, as I said, is very picky when it comes to partnerships.

DDS has held a long and respected place in tape technology, both stand-alone and automation. And use of DDS is not going to fade away tomorrow. I think DDS shipped about a million units last year. But perhaps some of the slowdown in the tape industry is, in part, due to uncertainty as to the successor technology to the enormously popular DDS format. Once established, the landscape may well change. In the meantime, watch those points of light in the tape technology sky. One of them might flare into a nova.
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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event
Author:Ferelli, Mark
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:1197
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