Tape Storage Carves a Role in E-Business

As the infrastructures that are needed to run e-businesses become more complex, the ability to store and access large volumes of information is becoming increasingly important.

But as the need for storage capacity and data warehousing continues to mushroom, cost-conscious companies are becoming wary of spending large sums on expensive disk-based storage systems -- especially for seldom-accessed data -- and are instead looking to tape-based systems.

"Companies are going to get to the point where they have so much data, much of which isn't being recalled that often, and they'll have to ask themselves, 'Do I really want to keep it on spinning-disk forever or do I want to store it on the cheapest manner possible?' " says Dave Hill, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc., in Boston.

But analysts also warn that tape cannot yet replace disk storage: Although one extra trick of tape storage devices is that they can be used as virtual hard drives, Hill suggests keeping tape off of the front line of a company's network.

"Tape is sequential, and the access time is not that fast," Hill says. "So you don't use it for real-time transactions, for example."Hill says the real strength of tape lies in its reliability in mirroring copies of network data and its immunity to viruses.

Viruses generally go after resident data on the system, Hill says, and therefore can't attack data stored on tape. Tape also ensures against accidental deletions, he added.

"Tape has to be a part of your choice for any storage decision, because backup and restore is fundamental, you can't put together an IT organization if you don't do storage well," Hill says.

Invented in the 1950s, tape storage systems "historically have not been as reliable as people would like, and they haven't had the performance that people would like so [tape vendors] are trying to upgrade," Hill says.

In the same way that disk storage recently underwent a revolution, a wave of recent upgrades to tape storage technology and the development of a new interoperability standard, LTO (Linear Tape Open), has opened the lines of communication among tape vendors in an effort to provide heterogeneous operation and backward-compatibility across proprietary tape storage platforms.

Similarly, the rival DLT (Digital Linear Tape) standard is also being enhanced to give that format higher levels of storage.

Tape storage media have been used in isolated "islands" during the past 50 years due to what Brenda Zawatski, vice president of removable media solutions at IBM's Storage Systems Division, sees as a lack of cohesive industry vision for tape storage and the unglamorous perception of tape as being an archaic solution.

This month, IBM Corp., along with LTO development partners Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co.; Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Seagate Technology Inc.; and Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Fujitsu Ltd., have already begun announcing a variety of LTO tape drives; and 28 other LTO licensee companies, mostly comprised of tape vendors such as Ampex and Maxell, have started producing LTO standard tape cartridges for LTO products expected to arrive early next year, according to Zawatski.

"LTO creates a standard that will last for at least eight years and will lower a company's storage cost on tape to one cent per Megabyte," Zawatski says.

The 4-inch-square LTO tape cartridges will store up to 100GB of information, and both the form factor and the stored data will be compatible with drives from any equipment manufacturer building to the LTO standard.

Big Blue's new Ultrium 3580 LTO tape drive, the cornerstone of the Armonk, N.Y.-based company's LTO product family, is a single-drive unit that can read 15MB of data per second, or 30MB of data if compressed. Starting at around US$9,250, the Ultrium 3580 can scale outward to as many as 2,400 tape cartridges and beyond -- a $42,000 configuration IBM is calling "Anaconda."By early next year, IBM will begin offering the option of running LTO drives side by side with drives based on the competing DLT standard to allow for data migration to the LTO format.

Although competing solution DLT is not integrated into the LTO standard, it too is getting a face-lift.

Philip Triede, manager of product marketing for Super DLT tape at Quantum, in Milpitas, Calif., says to expect DLT's upgrade to Super DLT by the end of this year -- an upgrade that will nearly triple the tape's current storage capacity from 40GB to 110GB.

The eighth generation of DLT tape, a format with a considerable installed base, Super DLT will be backward-compatible to DLT tapes and drives dating back as early as 1994, according to Triede, who says a single-drive, single-tape Super DLT unit from Quantum will start at about $8,000.

Representatives from both the LTO and DLT camps each agree that dispelling rumors that tape storage is too slow is a challenge.

To speed file access and maintain manageability in large tape arrays such as the Anaconda, both IBM and Quantum will also offer by year's end advanced "picker mechanisms," which are robotic arms that pull and insert tapes along the racks of tape drives, depending on the data being recalled.

Triede assures that in Quantum's testing, "while retrieving even the deepest file in a huge tape library, our access time is about two minutes."

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