StorageTek Exec Sees Bright Future For Tape

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Jon Benson Executives at StorageTek , one of the top storage tape library makers in the world, had reason to smile last month when EMC announced it will partner with tape library maker ADIC.

After years of castigating tape in favor of disk-based storage, EMC CEO Joseph Tucci acknowledged that customers, albeit a small number, are requesting tape.

Consequently, EMC agreed to offer tape in its information lifecycle management (ILM) portfolio, which is grounded on providing customers a choice of technologies. Though a bit conflicted, Tucci acknowledged the tape space is a $2.6 billion market opportunity.

Jon Benson, vice president and general manager of Automated Tape Solutions at StorageTek, believes it can be more, and predicts that the majority of companies’ storage will eventually move to tape. That’s why StorageTek is going full bore at customers and the competition with a barrage of products led by tape, including virtual tape libraries.

Despite what appears to be an industry move to revisit tape and a new product, StorageTek warned that it will miss analysts’ second-quarter expectations. The company cited a drop in orders during the last two weeks of the quarter. Official results will be issued July 20.

Benson’s team recently launched the StreamLine 500 modular tape library for mid-market customers, a scaled-down version of the company’s enterprise-class SL8500 machine for data backup.

Benson recently discussed StorageTek’s position against EMC and IBM with

Q: The storage industry has undergone some changes of late given the new compliance demand. Describe the mindset of customers you speak to when making your sales rounds.

You’ve got all of this customers who see the problem coming. Nobody throws anything away. The government puts all of these regulations on customers. Data continues to explode because digitization becomes more and more common. And budgets don’t allow for this. So what am you going to do? What are they doing about Sarbanes-Oxley? Well, some guys are trying to ignore it and hope they don’t get caught. Because they just can’t cover it.

Q: Compliance regulations have led top storage vendors to offer cradle-to-grave, or information lifecycle management. Describe your ILM strategy.

The customer thinks: “How do I make my life easier? How do I manage my budget and how do I manage my data for the long haul?” In the ’90s, people often threw money at things and companies like EMC offered Symmetrix. In the new millennium, the economy turned, companies lost profits and turned to extreme budget cuts. Now when the IT manager goes in to get a purchase order signed, he’s got to have a lot of justification to the CEO in order to get it signed. So, instead of just saying he’s going to put everything on enterprise disk, for example, he’s got to be able to manage that in the most efficient way possible to maximize his bottom line.

Then he needs to manage that in the long haul as well. On top of that, he needs to pay attention to some of the requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley. You have to keep the data available, but hopefully you’ll never have to access it. But if you do need it and you need it right now, you can retrieve it immediately. We think we’re well positioned in the space because we do migration of data for customers from the high end to the low end. We offer high-end disk, high-end tape and virtual tape in between. Customers say to us: “Explain to me how I manage it easy, but also explain how I can do it the cost effectively.”

Q: What has changed about the market to make vendors such as StorageTek offer products the way it does now?

A couple of years ago, the customer is sitting there with a screen in front of him. He wants to be able to put data in and get data back. He doesn’t care what’s behind the screen but he does care if the data comes back. The data doesn’t come back and he’s mad. If you look at tape automation prior to the StreamLine series, you had lots of single points of failure. Imagine him sitting there saying, “I want that data,” and you say, “Well, we migrated that so it’s not available.” That’s the reason we put out the SL8500 a few months ago. How do you solve that situation of 24-7, high availability? The key thing is how you manage the budget part of that. You get to do it efficiently with ILM.

A few years ago, most vendors like EMC were selling you big pieces. What you want to do is look at the problem and deliver a solution to the problem that meets each section’s needs. It’s about the environment, what you need for that environment, and that’s what we’re going to tailor your solution for. That’s the irony of EMC’s announcement with ADIC. Because there isn’t an ADIC platform that’s really ILM-capable, not to mention they’re a company that’s primarily in the low end. So for us it’s about making it easy to manage, scale, and making sure it’s always available.

Q: StorageTek isn’t the only company offering ILM at this juncture. Give an example of how you think you approach ILM compared to EMC.

What differentiates us from EMC? We don’t have to start the conversation with: “Here is what you should buy.” We start it with: “Here is your problem and this is what makes sense.” EMC walks into the conversation and says, “We think you need an ILM solution.” We agree. EMC says “migrate your data.” We agree. EMC says “Put the data over here.” We say, “Well that depends.” Maybe there is an application that belongs there. But maybe there’s a lot of applications that don’t.

If you’re EMC you kind of drop off the planet at the edge of disk even though they sell a lot more low-end disk than they sell high-end disk because the customer is pushing them in that direction anyway. Then they say “We guess you need tape.” They did kind of a backward announcement [with ADIC] there but it’s a good opportunity for us because it gives us an “in” to those customers now to get in there and manage the hierarchy for enterprise tape. It’s not about buy this, or buy that — it’s here is your problem and here is how to solve it throughout the hierarchy. That’s why ILM makes sense. Also while everyone talks about the customer’s problem, you’ve got various components to it. You’ve got the software element, and some key features that plug into that element.

Q: How does your latest major tape library, the SL500, fit into the picture?

Today in this marketplace, customers are asking us for a couple of things. In the enterprise space the SL8500 plays very well on mainframe floors. In the low to mid-range environment, everything is more distributed, and sits in a rack. The SAN sits in a rack, the disk sits in a rack, the server is in the rack. The only thing that wasn’t there traditionally was tape. It was a monolithic beast that sat there by itself. What users said was: “we want to run our systems and install our processes the same way to make things simple. But we need you to fit into that environment.”

That’s what this [StreamLine SL500] does. The downside to that environment is that in that in the past, there have only been little boxes that have fit into it, such as 20- to 80-cartridge boxes. What the customer said is: “Fit in that environment, but we need you to do that with a large box.” Of course engineers say that can’t be done. State-of-the-art today is somewhere a little over 200 cartridges in a rack approach. The SL500 actually goes well over 500 so it solves the problem of providing a large solution in a small form factor. It’s scalable and slides into a rack.

Q: The storage market has been through a lot in the last couple of years. What is your current position?

We’ve analyzed our portfolio and said we can grow organically, partner or acquire, and we will do of all those elements. Four years ago, we had a lot of debt and no cash. If you look at the books today, there is almost zero debt and well over a $1 billion in cash. We’re well positioned to make our ILM vision grow with acquisitions. Having said that, 75 percent of acquisitions are bad, so you have to careful about what you acquire. The nice thing about StorageTek’s position is there are several key vendors out there who think aligning in a partnership with StorageTek is much easier than aligning with EMC. EMC’s got Legato, proprietary disk pieces … You look at that and the other software companies out there that the customer may prefer, and it’s a lot easier to line up with a StorageTek solution than an EMC solution.

Article courtesy of

Clint Boulton
Clint Boulton
Clint Boulton is an Enterprise Storage Forum contributor and a senior writer for covering IT leadership, the CIO role, and digital transformation.

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