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Sony has now shipped qualification units of its first-generation SuperAdvanced Intelligent Tape (S-AIT) to about eight OEMs, introducing a new breed of technology to the enterprise tape automation space. S-AIT is the first half-inch drive with over 1 TB of uncompressed capacity, and Sony is targeting the drive at high-end applications like digital asset management, broadcasting, and government archiving. By the end of 2003, Sony plans to add write-once capabilities.
Volume OEM shipment of S-AIT tape drives and media will start in January, said John Woelbern, director of OEM marketing for Sony Electronics' Tape Storage Solutions Division. The first wave of S-AIT automated tape library products will hit next spring.
The initial crop of S-AIT drives offers 1.3 TB of compressed data capacity, 500 GB of native capacity, and sustained data transfer rates of 78 MB/sec (compressed) and 30 MB/sec (native). "After this, we'll be coming out with a new generation about every two years, through at least four generations. Each generation will provide twice the capacity and double the transfer rate of the previous generation," Woelbern contended.
With S-AIT, Sony is moving base technology developed for its lower-end AIT line to the half-inch form factor. The half-inch market is currently dominated by Quantum's SDLT320 and LTO Generation 2 (Ultrium), a technology already adopted by Seagate, HP and IBM. "We'll compete with SDLT320 and Ultrium, but we won't really be head-to-head," he predicted.
Woelbern also pointed to "some overlap and some competition" with upper-end products like IBM MagStar, StorageTek's 9X40, and Sony's own Digital Tape Format (DTF), a tape technology geared to the broadcasting industry.
"We compare very favorably on a cost per gigabyte basis," according to Woelbern. Sony plans to price the 5.25-inch full-height drives at about $10,000 per drive - higher than SDLT320 and Ultrium, but lower than MagStar and 9X40, for example. The S-AIT drives will use 600m half-inch single-reel tape with R-MIC.
Industry analysts foresee a lot of potential. "SDLT has a large installed base, and Ultrium has been picking up steam. S-AIT, on the other hand, is just now rolling out the door. This is a market with lots of nuances. So far, though, S-AIT is very impressive. It's got all the correct attributes," maintained Robert Amatruda, IDC's research manager for tape and removable storage.
Today, SDLT320 offers only 320GB compressed capacity, whereas Ultrium offers 400 GB, according to the AIT Technology Forum, an industry group spearheaded by Sony. With its second generation LTO 2 product, HP is achieving a 30 MB/sec data transfer rate. SDLT320, though, is still at 16MB/sec. Earlier this month, Quantum unveiled plans to reach 640 GB capacity and a 64 MB/sec data transfer rate by mid-2003 with SDLT.
"S-AIT is very high-end, and this differentiates it from most of Sony's previous tape offerings," Amatruda observed. "Sony's current AIT product is being deployed mainly in very large libraries. Sony's been playing at the high end, to some degree, with DTF. With SAIT, though, Sony is using the same size of drive and cartridge as SDLT and Ultrium. This lets OEM partners easily leverage their previous investments in half-inch technology."
A this point, about eight OEM partners have opted to qualify the S-AIT drives, according to Woelbern. He declined, though, to specify which ones. "We expect the first products to ship from OEMs in March or April of next year. This reflects the time to qualify," Woelbern added.
Also next spring, Sony will also start integrating S-AIT technology into its own line-up of Petasite ultra-high capacity storage systems, he said. Currently, Petasite systems use Sony DTF drives.
Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics Industries, Ltd. (MKE) and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. (MEI) are slated to serve as second sources for S-AIT drives and media. MEI also produces Panasonic-branded products. "MEI may be either an independent second brand, or a second source for the Sony brand. This hasn't been decided yet," Woelbern said.
Sony has already done some S-AIT testing with OEMs and end customers over the past year or two. "Now, we'll be refining our research some more through customer focus groups," according to Woelbern.
Other target applications for S-AIT include medical imaging, financial archiving, and the oil and gas industry, he said.
Woelbern also dismissed disk drive storage and back-up as a potential rival. "Most disk drive storage today is at the very low end," Woelbern pointed out.
"Tape is still the main technology used for data protection backup and archiving," agreed IDC's Amatruda.