Warring tape library giants

Who do you go to when you need a really large tape library? Well, you only have a handful of options. ADIC, IBM, StorageTek and Sun are the only 'large' vendors that come to mind. And I'm defining 'large' as a library that is not fussy about OSes and supports concurrent requests from mainframe and open systems.

Additionally a large library should have room for thousands of media slots and scale almost indefinitely, because when a datacenter handles a high volume of media there aren’t enough hours in a day to load and unload them all.

Speaking of time, that mega library should also minimize servers’ backup windows with disk-based buffers and host enough tape drives to ensure a smooth copy to reels after that. Did I mention resilience? How about long term investment?

If your company is shelling out seven figures on a library, then that investment better last at least a few years, which means that the library should have a life-span longer than its current choice of tape drives. In essence, you shouldn’t have to face the choice of trashing the library or adopting new tape drives.

If you agree with this criterion, then a new mega library from StorageTek may trigger your interest. Although the library won’t ship until next year Q2, the new StorageTek StreamLine 8500 was presented at the latest Storage Networking World in Orlando with the promise of giving large datacenters all they ever dreamed of in a high-end backup solution.

Still early, StorageTek is not talking price, but instead focusing on eye-catching features such as multiple robots, support for all FC (Fibre Channel) dialects, extreme redundancy, and exceptional scalability.

The expectations are that StreamLine 8500 models should be priced a notch higher than the PowderHorn 9310, the current admiral in the company fleet.

But let’s forget money for a second. Competitors be warned: StorageTek is making it clear that with a capacity range of up to 200,000 media slots, the 8500 will be the largest library ever, and offer a swift, five seconds cartridge access time and a quick inventory time -- less than 10 minutes to sniff over 6,600 slots.

Of course, that mega-capacity requires combining multiple library modules, up to 32, says StorageTek. However, customers can also start smaller, with a single frame that offers the respectable and unshared capacity for 1,436 cartridges and up to 64 tape drives.

Wondering which tape drives will be in the StreamLine 8500? Of course, StorageTek models such as the 9840 and 9940 will be present, plus other high-end units from HP, IBM, and Quantum. However, the StreamLine 8500 will allow adding support for new drives with a simple non-disruptive microcode update.

And to simplify migration, customers can move drives from their existing library to the 8500, which should preserve their hardware dollars. But what I find most interesting about the new library is its ability to isolate application servers from drive and media failures.

In fact, backups will automatically execute in two stages: first to disk and then to tape media, which is not only faster but also more reliable. For example, should a tape drive or media fail, the 8500 policies will automatically switch the copy to another unit or cartridge. Major software vendors applications are expected to support the 8500.

Equally important, the SL8500 intermediate copy-to-disk step promises to make installing new tape drives transparent for backup servers. In fact, those backup servers can maintain the old tape format as their target media while policies inside the library manages copies to the new tape devices.

Furthermore, similar policies that can smartly run during the library idle time can help customers migrating content stored on old media to a new format -- a much-needed assistance feature when changing to a new tape technology.

Not many companies can afford or would ever even need a high-end tape library, which makes this battle among giants a fiercely competitive market.

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