Certance acquisition could give the company an edge on two key tape technologies

I should be used to it by now, but the dynamic nature of the storage market never fails to surprise me. Really, there are no persistent realities in a universe in which unrelenting change is the only constant.

You've probably guessed what triggers my rant this time: the recent news about Quantum moving to acquire Certance. If you've been reading this column, neither company should be unfamiliar, but let me remind everyone that Certance recently beat everybody else to market with its new LTO-3 (linear tape open) format.

As for Quantum, the company finally filled a gap between its proprietary SDLT (super digital linear tape) and competing tape technologies, adding WORM support, albeit only to the SDT600 model. Quantum is also reusing normal cartridges, whereas other vendors, including IBM and Sony, deploy WORM on dedicated media.

To complete that picture, add the fact that in recent years Quantum has been struggling to defend its lead in the midrange tape market from formidable rivals such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

In fact, according to an October 2004 IDC report, Quantum shipped more tape drives than its rivals in that market segment in 2003, but a breakdown by type in the same report shows more than 52 percent of all units shipped were LTOs, while DLT and SDLT accounted for less than 40 percent.

To be fair, that report shows the company losing ground to its rivals in 2004. According to results for the first half of 2004, HP took the lead in that segment, followed by IBM and then Quantum.

In the same study, Certance has a leading position in entry-level drives -- with more than 80 percent of the market for 2003 -- and scores a remarkable second-place finish with 26 percent of the shipments for low-end units, right behind HP.

As for Quantum, the IDC report shows no appreciable numbers in the entry-level segment but indicates shipments of more than 13 percent of low-end units for 2003, well behind third-ranking Sony.

Some of my conversations with major OEMs offer anecdotal confirmation that DLT and SDLT units have lost some of their charm in favor of LTO. Also, it's important to remember that Quantum is already deploying LTO tapes in some high-end libraries.

What can we make of all this? Obviously, when the acquisition is complete, which should happen by year's end, the combined Quantum-Certance shipments should give the company first place in the entry-level and low-end markets. In the midrange market, Certance grabbed a significant 5 percent of 2003 shipments, which could bring Quantum back into or close to first place in next year's statistics.

Perhaps more important will be how Quantum will leverage its newly acquired, preferential access to a key technology such as LTO. Being the only vendor having a foot in both circles should give Quantum some leverage but only if it shows impartial support for both tape technologies. This, I am sure, will happen. Of course, Quantum has to keep its DLT and SDLT ducks in a row, but it cannot ignore customers who have already spoken and indicated what they favor, at least for the last few quarters: LTO.

Mario Apicella is a senior analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center.

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