Opinion: Tales of the tape

Unless it's the only protection you have for your databases, a tape backup may seem passe. After all, disk-based copies now offer more flexibility and less exposure to operating snafus.

But don't discount that old faithful tape quite yet; a reel is still the most cost-effective choice to store data by the terabyte and preserve it for a long time.

Those reels' capabilities and performance are still improving, too. Take for instance the new S-AIT, which stands for a mouthful of adjectives: super advanced intelligent tape. Sony released S-AIT to its OEM partners for evaluation in December; with a 5.25-inch form factor, the new drive is slightly bigger than the AIT we know. In addition, the media will roll a half-inch-wide tape on a single reel for a native capacity of 500GB.

"How is this new tape still an AIT?" you may ask. Sony assures us that the recording technology and media characteristics are the same, only on a larger scale.

Expect a speedy transfer rate of 30MBps without compression from the S-AIT, and more than double the capacity and performance if your data can bear a high compression ratio.

We should see the first units shipping in springtime at a price per drive that Sony prudently estimates will range from US$10,000 to US$13,000, depending on the configuration. The first S-AIT model will be followed by three more, each promising double capacity and performance, with the eventual objective of storing 4TB of native data on S-AIT4 by 2010.

Before those numbers make us all dizzy, let's try to understand how the S-AIT affects the tape market. S-AIT clearly leapfrogs Super DLT (digital linear tape) and LTO (linear tape open) Ultrium tapes in capacity, although version two of LTO and SDLT promises a comparable transfer rate.

The S-AIT also adds to the competition in this space; obviously Quantum has to face another bully in the midmarket, in addition to shrinking customer demand. Not surprisingly, the company is counting on backward compatibility and on domineering market share to maintain its leadership.

In fact, the recent acquisition of Benchmark Innovations, a manufacturer of half-sized DLT compatible drives, gives Quantum a two-pronged offering, adding a value line, sized for entry-level customers, to its SDLT road map.

Not surprisingly, the value DLT contends with Sony's AIT line but offers a smoother upgrade path to higher capacity drives, with promised read-backward compatibility.

A hunch, and our sometimes cloudy crystal ball, tell us that while the cost per gigabyte is declining, in 2003 you will have to shell out more cash for your tapes. Don't blame this on vendor greediness: They have to spread their R&D cost and a healthy margin on fewer units. Better start planning how to budget your tape dollars for next year.

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