Tape Gets Respect from IT Giants

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This week is shaping up to be one of the busiest in the history of data tapes, with HP (NYSE: HPQ) and Sony (NYSE: SNE) teaming up to create the next generation of Digital Audio Tape (DAT), while Sun (NASDAQ: JAVA) and IBM (NYSE: IBM) fight for the crown of being first with a 1 terabyte (TB) tape drive.

To some, the news signals that tape storage remains alive and well in an era of ever-cheaper hard drives.

"Tape is the Rodney Dangerfield of storage," said Robert Amatruda, research director at IDC. "No doubt there has been a decline in the market, but it's still a relevant technology widely deployed. The news proves there's still strong investment in what's become a mature technology."

Tape has long been an important piece of the storage infrastructure puzzle for many businesses, especially small and mid-sized companies that need economical and easy-to-manage backup and disaster recovery.

While it doesn't dominate the storage market like it did a decade ago, tape has evolved into a reliable, strong-performing fit for lower-end markets, according to Bob Wilson, vice president of storage platforms for HP StorageWorks.

"Its death is overly exaggerated, as it's a very vibrant technology," said Wilson.

That vibrancy is what prompted HP and Sony to co-develop DAT 320, the seventh generation of the Digital Data Storage (DDS) standard, announced today. The two vendors will build and sell their own tape drives based on the new standard. It's the first time the two have worked together on DAT since the first four generations of the technology, which commands an 81% market share of the low-end tape market.

"It's possibly the most successful tape technology ever shipped," said Bob Conway, manager of tape product marketing for HP StorageWorks, with 18 million drives and 400 million tapes shipped since 1989.

"Demand for higher-capacity data backup and archiving continues to be important for small and mid-sized businesses and enterprise environments," Masayoshi Sugiyama, president of Sony's chemical device business group, said in a statement. "Combining HP's six DAT generations and Sony's 50-year history in magnetic recording technology provides a compelling solution."

The DAT 320 will offer up to 320 gigabytes (GB) of capacity on a single cartridge, double what the current DAT 160 provides. The vendors said the new format will require less energy per GB while also remaining backward compatible.

Terabyte Tape Arrives — Twice

Elsewhere in the tape world, Sun and IBM are dueling for the title of first to market with a 1 TB drive, with each announcing products this week.

IBM today launched the System Storage TS1130 Tape Drive, targeted toward mid-sized businesses in financial services and life sciences as well as the public sector.

The product's 160MB/sec speed is 54 percent faster than the previous-generation drive. But it's the new tape head that's the compelling technology story, according to Bruce Master, worldwide tape storage marketing manager at IBM.

The Giant Magnetoresistive (GMR) head design, which has been in development for years, cuts down data read errors, improves data integrity and reliability, he said.

IBM System Storage TS1130 Tape Drive
IBM System Storage TS1130 tape drive
Source: IBM

"You can put more tracks on the tape with this head, and that means write more data," Master said, describing the design as similar to a wide, one-lane road that's divided into eight lanes to support greater traffic flow.

Additionally, the new head's design could mark a change that remains in place for years to come.

"This first-generation GMR should be a good technology for the next eight to 10 years," Master said, adding that other tape elements have in recent years undergone similar evolutions, including the chipset and read/write elements. Together, such improvements have contributed to tape's continued progress.

"Just 10 years ago, we were excited about 10 GB on a tape, now it's a hundred fold that capacity," he said.

At the same time, such product evolution is needed to keep tape a viable option in a world where the price of disk-based storage options continues dropping, industry-watchers said.

"Those who say tape is dead or dying are the uneducated," said Brian Babineau, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "Disk and tape will coexist and new standards are important for bigger, better and faster technology."

Meanwhile, Sun has plans of its own for terabyte-capacity tapes, yesterday releasing the StorageTek T10000B tape drive for larger-scale and mainframe environments.

"Sun has again delivered on its promise to help customers achieve greater datacenter efficiency and raised the bar on the industry by bringing the world's first 1 TB tape storage drive to market," Jason Schaffer, Sun's senior director for storage marketing, said in a statement.

Since it's backward compatible, the T10000B can read and write 500GB media from Sun's existing StorageTek T10000 tape drives. With the new drive, those same tape cartridges can now support up to 1 TB of capacity.

IDC's Amatruda said the investments in new product design from HP, Sony, IBM and Sun prove that tape is still an innovative technology some 50 years after its debut.

"It shows the longevity of the technology," Amatruda said. "These products and capacity points acknowledge there is a viable market to be addressed."

Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO, echoed those views, calling tape a "zombie" technology.

"It's been declared dead for decades, yet it lives on," Schulz said. "It's still here because of its economics, reliability and capacity."

This article first appeared on Internet News, with additional reporting by Paul Shread of Enterprise Storage Forum

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