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Tape On The Cheap--Drives Under $1,500.

Tape Wars continue. In fact, they're probably heating up with such upstarts as Benchmark and Ecrix chipping away at the low end, Exabyte's Mammoth 2 and Sony's AIT-2 fighting out the 8mm battles in the $2,000-3,000 range, and Super DLT and LTO poised to duke it out for market share that was once almost exclusively the territory owned by DLT. Throw in Tandberg Data's SLR 50 and some interesting drives at the lower price range and it looks like a real fight is brewing.

Realizing that backup is not just for large IT organizations (and for many it makes sense to leave it on the desktop), this article will look at drives that are positioned in the relatively low reaches of tape drives. Arbitrarily, I chose a $1,500 street price to represent the top of this scale. Surprisingly, many drives met that basic criterion--drives ranging from low capacity, slow, last generation drives selling for as little as $150 or $200; a lot of more sophisticated siblings with capacities ranging from 2GB to 8GB native and many more interesting drives.

In order to create a manageable list, it was important to set other criteria beyond the mere price point. Thus, only drives with native tape capacities of at least 10GB were included. This is not to say that lower capacity drives are not important--on my daughter's desktop, a drive with a 5GB native capacity would probably do fine. My wife's computer may be a different matter, probably requiring 10-20GB native capacity. I won't even hint at what I may need to do a full backup. The point here is that, for the purposes of this article, any drive with native capacity below 10GB wasn't included, to keep the list small, as well as providing a focus on drives that may find a place on desktops with more data to store, or as backup devices for small networks.

Drive prices were obtained from a number of sources, including a retail online computing equipment store and pricing provided by the manufacturers. Drive capacities are native, uncompressed capacities. Depending on the type of data being compressed, the rule of thumb is that the amount of data that can be stored, compressed, onto the tape is roughly twice that of the native data. Transfer rates were obtained from the manufacturer and/or drive retailer spec sheets. Finally, performance figures were grouped by technology--DDS 3 drives, for example, all feature the same native capacity and it is assumed that transfer rates were also similar.

Although the drives within a specific technology type (i.e., DDS 3) had similar specifications, many factors influenced the pricing. These included items bundled with the drives (backup software, media, cables, etc.), whether the drive was internal or external (external drives cost more), warranty period, and intangibles (all other things being equal, one manufacturer may charge a higher price because, perhaps, all other things may not be equal and the perceived quality or support provided by one manufacturer may be worth more to a consumer than a drive from another company).

Travan 5

The Travan 5 drive is the latest and possibly last in a series of linear tape technologies. Travan has deep roots, evolving from a few hundred megabytes capacity to its current 10GB native capacity.

Travan 5 drives are offered by Tecruar, Hewlett-Packard, and others, and are backward compatible with tapes written using earlier Travan versions. Where backward compatibility is important, the Travan 5 drives may be especially useful, providing the compatibility, while also delivering higher capacity than earlier versions.

Tecmar offers a version of the drive with what it describes as "network" features--power assisted load, flush loading, and other features, but with a 1MB/sec native transfer rate, Travan 5 probably lacks the performance to make it useful for all but the least demanding small network. Hewlett-Packard chose not to implement network features on its drive, believing that there wouldn't be much demand for such features on a drive with these specifications.

Although the price for Travan 5, ranging from the mid $300s into the $400 and higher, is not bad for a backup device. OnStream, with higher capacity and a similar price point, is a strong challenger.

OnStream

OnStream is an interesting series of drives. The technology uses multiple heads, all writing simultaneously, to record multiple tracks of data onto the tape media. The DI30, with an IDE interface has a native transfer rate of 1MB/sec, in line with that of the Travan 5. However, its 15GB native capacity and sub-$300 price make it a strong competitor to Travan 5.

Further, OnStream has demonstrated the ability of the drive to playback streaming MPEG video, showing the drive's ability to continuously stream data without interruption. Additionally, the drives are shipped with software that can stream ongoing changes to data, in effect, mirroring a system to OnStream tape.

SCSI versions of the OnStream drive are currently offered in native capacities of 15 and 25GB with faster transfer rates. The SC30, with 15GB native capacity, has a native transfer rate of 2MB/sec, while the SC50, with 25GB native capacity, has a native transfer rate of 3MB/sec. The SC70, with a native capacity of 35GB, was recently announced. Respectable capacities, adequate performance, and relatively reasonable price points (the SC50 is less than $900) make OnStream an interesting technology to watch.

Tandberg SLR24

Although the SLR24 is not the latest generation of Tandberg Data's linear tape offering, performance and capacity of this drive make it an appropriate drive for this article. The drive, with a price of around $800, has a native capacity of 12GB and a transfer rate of 1.2MB/sec--slightly higher than either Travan 5 or OnStream's IDE drive.

Tandberg's strongest argument, aside from a long history of manufacturing reliable tape drives, is its very low failure rate and excellent service history. Compared to some of the lower priced offerings in this article, the SLR24 may feel much more solidly constructed, and may, ultimately, be a more robust drive than some of the others included here.

Tandberg is offering drives with native capacities as high as 50GB. The higher capacity drives, while interesting, were priced above the $1,500 limit set for this survey.

DDS3, DDS4

DDS, the successor to DAT, uses 4mm helical scan tape and is offered by a large number of vendors, including Sony, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Seagate, and many others. Two generations of DDS technology match the criteria for this article: DDS3 and DDS4.

DDS3 provides a native capacity of 12GB with transfer rates of around 2.7MB/sec (the rate may vary from one manufacturer to another). Drive prices range from around $700 to just below $1,000.

DDS3 has been popular enough to become a major target for automation. Multi-cartridge changers enable the small network to perform automated backup to as many as six cartridges.

DDS4 is the latest and some say the last generation of DDS technology. DDS4 delivers a native capacity of 20GB and a transfer speed of 3MB/sec uncompressed. As expected, the drives are priced higher than the DDS3s with pricing running from roughly $1,050 to over $1,200. As with DDS3, automated changers can provide backup of more than 100GB of data to multiple tapes.

DDS3 and DDS4 are proven technologies. Both provide backward read compatibility to earlier generation DDS drives.

Mammoth LT

Perhaps one of the more interesting entries onto this list is the (relatively) low cost version of Exabyte's Mammoth technology. The LT, with 14GB native capacity and a native transfer speed of 2MB/sec is the bottom of the Mammoth line.

The LT shares many of the design features of its higher capacity and higher performance siblings, the Mammoth and the Mammoth 2. With a street price of about $1,250, this low-end of a line that is designed to compete head to head with DLT and AIT can be an interesting option. In automotive terms, the LT may be considered the Cadillac Seville, in comparison to the Coupe De Ville and Eldorado at higher ends of the product line--still a Cadillac, but with somewhat reduced performance and capacity.

VXA1

The VXA1 from Ecrix is an 8mm helical scan drive that implements some interesting new capabilities. With a street price below $900 and a native capacity of 33GB, the VXA 1 can be considered at the high end of the low end (when compared to technologies like OnStream), or the low end of the high end (when compared to such technologies as Mammoth, AIT, or LTO). A native transfer rate of 3MB/sec positions it right alongside DDS4 and DLT 1.

The VXA1 drive has a number of unique features. Its discrete packet format enables it to write to the media in a highly reliable way. The DPF feature enables high levels of data integrity. In addition, the drive uses four heads--there is considerable overlap when the tape is read--if a packet on tape is not correctly read by one head, one of the other three heads will be able to take another pass at the tape without requiring a change in tape direction. This feature, called overscanning, is said to improve performance, while also reducing the wear on tape and drive that results from stopping the tape, rewinding, then restarting in order to make a second pass at the data--a common method used by most tape drives in order to attempt to reread data on a tape.

Additionally, the Ecrix drive can move the tape at any of four speeds. The speed control feature allows the drive to be closely matched to the data rate of the computer that it is transferring data to or from. This further reduces the problems associated with stopping and restarting the tape that are common on most other drives.

Discrete Packet Format and speed control are said to have reduced the necessity for very high tolerances that are required on other helical scan drives. As a result, Ecrix is said to be able to provide performance and capacities comparable to other technologies, while doing so at a lower cost.

DLT1

The Benchmark DLT1 may be the most interesting of the offerings in this group. This drive, with a price of $1,200-1,300 may be a strong competitor to DLT. The drive is read compatible with data written by a DLT4000 tape drive.

A native capacity of 40GB puts it more in a league with the DLT7000 and DLT8000 than it does the DLT4000, although the 3MB/sec transfer rate is respectable, but no challenge to the higher end DLT drives.

The DLT1 is a large drive, similar in form factor to the DLT drives. It's also relatively noisy--again, a lot like DLT drives. These physical characteristics, in combination with the considerable price difference between this drive and the DLT4000, 7000, and 8000 drives may be among the most attractive features. Automation providers who offer tape libraries and changers based on the DLT1 can shave $3,000 or more per drive from the cost of the automated device. The modifications needed to use a DLT1 drive in a device that was designed for DLT4000, 7000, or 8000 drives is said to be minor.

Although an automated system using the DLT1 drive will have lower performance than a system with a DLT7000 or DLT8000 drive, the capacities will be similar and the cost differences may be compelling. The Benchmark DLT1 will be an interesting one to watch and may be an ultimate winner at this low end of the market because of its high capacity, ability to use DLT media, and considerable price difference when compared to DLT.

Ecrix Tapes Up The Competition

Ecrix Corporation announced the availability of its VXA-1 tape drive in a configuration developed for the Mac market. The drive will offer three interface choices: a SCSI single ended narrow and a Low Voltage Differential (LVD), both available in February 2000, and a Fire Wire (IEEE 1394) interface available in the second half of 2000.

The tape drive includes all cables a cleaning tape, media, and Dantz Development Corporation's Retrospect, a backup software for the Mac. This enables Mac users to benefit from the drive's performance and reliability. The new product is available for $1,199 MSRP (Other product configurations are available starting from $899 MSRP.)

Ecrix's FireWire tape solution a provides a product for the Mac market. The VXA-1 tape drive's 66GB of capacity and 6MB/sec transfer rate meet the data backup and restore requirements of the digital video, gaming, graphic design web authoring, computer-aided design, and publishing industries.

"We look forward to providing this mid-range tape solution to Mac users," said Kelly Beavers, president of Ecrix. "The [tape drive], with its reliability and performance, delivers solution for Mac users who manage amounts of data."

"Apple's FireWire is the connection standard that lets developers create hardware and software solutions for the Mac," said Clent Richardson, Apple's vice president of worldwide developer relations. "[The company's] FireWire VXA tape drive is for Mac users who need storage because of its 'hot plug' capability and automatic configuration."

"We think the [drive] is going to be popular with Mac customers," said Craig Isaacs, Dantz's vice president of sales and marketing. "Ecrix [Corporation's] drive offers a match for Retrospect's power and use. We're looking forward to working with them in the future."

VXA technology is based on three complementary innovations: Discrete Packet Format (DPF), Variable Speed Operation (VSO), and OverScan Operation (OSO). DPF enables data to be written and read in individually addressed packets, a technology similar to that in the networking and Internet markets. VSO saves time by adjusting tape speed to match the data throughout of the server, eliminating a common streaming tape problem known as "backhitching." OSO is a technique for reading data packets independent of track shape or geometry. By overscanning data packets at variable tape speeds, VXA guarantees data restore.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event
Author:Brownstein, Mark
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:2322
Previous Article:SUPER DLTtape TECHNOLOGY MODULAR DESIGN: Building blocks for future generations.
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