Straddling Tape and Disk Worlds

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Red states versus blue. Coke versus Pepsi. Tape versus disk. These classic battles for market supremacy may never end. But in the case of tape versus disk, some vendors believe it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. In fact, data tape pioneer Imation has been carefully hedging its bets by developing removable data storage solutions targeted to enterprises with legacy tape backup systems that want the fast retrieval rates of disk but with the portability and reliability of tape.

So can you really have your tape and disk-to-disk too — without having to replace your existing data backup system? Absolutely.

Tape Versus Disk

“If we look at current tape-based solutions, the advantages are: it’s a known entity, understood, relatively low cost (particularly if you have petabytes of data to back up), and portable,” explains Greg Schulz, founder of and senior analyst at the StorageIO Group. The disadvantages, he says, are that tapes require some level of handling, they wear out (though he notes that disk drives wear out too), and backup and retrieval times can be slow compared to disk.

Although the price of disk-based storage solutions continues to come down and make hard disk drive data backup more attractive for midsize and smaller enterprises, the reality is that for the thousands of businesses with legacy tape backup storage solutions, the cost and pain of migrating to an all-disk solution is still too great. So many enterprises continue to cling to their tape-based storage solutions. Others (and more and more enterprises fall into this category) have adopted a tiered approach, using disk-based solutions for short-term storage, tape-based solutions for long-term or archival storage, and having an offsite mirror and/or a disaster recovery site as the ultimate backup solution.

Versus Tape and Disk

First announced in October 2005, Imation’s Ulysses disk-enhanced removable media cartridge technology — the first of its kind — was developed precisely for midsize and larger enterprises, companies with 100-plus-cartridge tape libraries, wrestling with the tape versus disk dilemma.

“The disk-to-disk backup solutions being offered weren’t integrating well with tape,” explains James Ellis, vice president of Strategic Growth Programs at Imation. “So we came up with Ulysses technology. Ulysses was really meant to work right in combination with tape. It enhances tape rather than replacing it. It emulates the tape drive, so even though it’s a removable hard-drive cartridge, to the operating system and to the backup software, it looks like a tape drive. And it operates just like a tape drive” — only faster, with restore times up to 10 times faster than a tape-only library.

Moreover, because Ulysses — a 2.5-inch SATAdisk drive in an industry standard tape cartridge — emulates an LTO drive and the Ulysses media has the same form factor as LTO Ultrium cartridges, users can swap Ulysses cartridges into their existing tape environment with no changes to their technology infrastructure.

“You can replace an existing tape drive and keep the operation going just like it was before you replaced it with Ulysses,” says Ellis, “because to the operating system and the backup software, it looks just like a tape drive. You don’t have to change any of your scripts or anything on the operations side. You essentially swapped out some hardware and replaced it with some disk-to-disk backup hardware in the existing library.”

And Ellis is quick to add that Imation does not expect customers to wholesale swap out existing tape libraries for the Ulysses solution. “You don’t replace all of your drives or all of your tapes,” he explains. “You replace some portion, say 20 percent of the drives and 20 percent of the tapes. So you’d have a mixed mode library.”

For Schulz, who is an advocate of disk-based backup but sees plenty of life left in tape, particularly for archiving and storing large amounts of data, hybrid solutions like Imation’s Ulysses make sense. “We’re stuck with tape,” says Schulz. “This is why companies like Imation are trying to enhance tape, trying to address the ability to rapidly restore [data] … and make it look and feel and function more like disk.”

“People always try to get us to say it’s one or the other [tape or disk], and we keep saying we just don’t believe that,” says Ellis. “Tape is still by far the lowest cost way to store data for any length of time, whether it’s backup or archive. So we don’t see tape going away. But we do see opportunities to enhance the performance of tape, and that’s where Ulysses comes in. We think the two work well together and you’ve got to be prepared to use both to optimize the operation.”

Versus Flash and Optical

Not a company to rest on its laurels — or tape-based solutions (in addition to its many data backup solutions, Imation also owns Memorex) — Imation recently expanded its commitment to removable hard-disk solutions, announcing the upcoming release of two new magnetic disk-based technologies for disk-to-disk data protection, the Odyssey dock and hard disk cartridge for companies seeking entry level disk-based data storage options, and the RDX removable hard-disk cartridge and drive for small and midsized businesses. Imation is also developing new tape technologies like LTO4, set to launch in Q1 of 2007, which is supposed to greatly increase data transfer rates and storage capacity, and working on both Blu-ray and HD-DVD optical storage solutions.

Schulz sees this as part of a trend. “We’re continuing to see more and more adoption of other media,” he says. “Just as with tape, there are arguments that the disk drive is about to be dead, that the disk drive has hit the wall. But the reality is that we’ve got another 15 to 20 years of very much viability in the magnetic disk drive. However, there are new challenges … flash — USB thumb drives — and optical. But until things like HD-DVD get up into the 250 GB category range, there’ll still be that need for tape.”

For now, Imation’s tape library-friendly removable disk technology is a stepping stone and proof that tape and disk can play — and store data — nicely together.

For more storage features, visit Enterprise Storage Forum Special Reports

Jennifer Schiff
Jennifer Schiff
Jennifer Schiff is a business and technology writer and a contributor to Enterprise Storage Forum. She also runs Schiff & Schiff Communications, a marketing firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.

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