LTO Tape Buying Guide

Linear-Tape Open (LTO) has been around for many years. Some vendors and analysts are claiming it is now hotter than ever due to new capabilities. And it isn’t just stodgy old diehards in banking or other mainframe holdouts that are clinging to tape like an aging hippie might hang onto long (though gray and balding) hair.

No less than CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is a big fan. These are the guys featured in the “Angels and Demons” movie who study the basic constituents of matter using massive particle accelerators to boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other.

A Spectra Logic LTO-based tape library was installed there last year to store data copies from its Large Hadron Collider (LHC). And CERN is planning to migrate LHC data from its Spectra T380 tape library to a Spectra T-Finity using CERN’s Advanced STORage manager (CASTOR) for hierarchical storage management (HSM).

“With CERN’s vast volumes of data, we needed a solution that would provide scalability for growth while ensuring the integrity and accessibility of the data,” said Vladimír Bahyl, tape service manager at CERN. “We easily integrated Spectra’s T-Series tape libraries with our CASTOR HSM software, providing high density in a small data center footprint.”

Spectra Logic, though, is but one of many vendors providing LTO gear. According to an organization known as the LTO Program, dozens of companies are using this tape format. The LTO Program is overseen by HP, IBM and Quantum, which develop technology specifications and make the specs available for licensing.

And far from being a limited market, dozens of companies offer LTO gear:

Rather than trying to compare and contrast the vendors, the purpose of this Buying Guide is to educate users on the latest in LTO so they know what capabilities are available and can see which prospective vendors are doing the best job of providing the most current LTO features.


2011 saw the introduction of LTO-5. From LTO generation 4 to LTO generation 5 data increased by 17 percent.

“The LTO Program conducted extensive user research along with licensee and industry analyst input that showed for many users, the then-current LTO tape technology outperformed the application data stream,” said Bruce Master, senior program manager for IBM Data Protection and Retention Systems. “Therefore, the LTO Program incrementally increased the data rate specification for generation 5 to address performance needs and cost.”

In addition, the capacity from gen 4 to gen 5 nearly doubled. That means up to 3 TB per cartridge, 280 MB/s throughput compared to 240 MB/s before, as well as portioning, encryption and Write Once Read Many (WORM) technology. To avoid backward compatibility issues, an LTO-5 tape drive can read and write to an LTO-4 cartridge, and read an LTO-3 cartridge.

Another new feature is Linear Tape File System (LTFS). This specification defines an extension to the operating system. Users can download the stand-alone drive software and install it at no charge.

“LTFS is enabled by the dual-partitioning capability of LTO Generation 5 technology,” said Laura Loredo, marketing product manager for HP. “LTFS provides file system access at the operating system level especially for unstructured data.”

It uses one partition to hold the content’s index and the other to hold the content. The tape is well-suited to archiving because a user could identify the contents of the tape years later by putting it in a drive and viewing the contents in the system browser directory tree. It also allows drag and drop capability for ease of use similar to using a memory stick.

“LTO technology and LTFS are ideal for big data and rich media (video files, images, seismic information, medical records, construction drawings, digital video surveillance and more),” said Loredo. “LTFS-supported offerings are now available from a variety of vendors in software and hardware products as well as small to large tape automation.”


Coming soon is LTO-6. This boosts performance up to 8 TB compressed and up to 525 MB/s. Generation 6 products should start appearing on the market later in 2012. Some vendors have already begun promoting them.

Spectra Logic, for example, advertses a free upgrade to LTO-6 for those purchasing LTO-5 with a LTO-6 pre-purchase option. The idea is to encourage users to continue buying LTO-5 rather than marking time for six months or a year until the faster stuff materializes.

Tape Value Proposition

While disk vendors are keen to promote disk-based backup, the LTO Program says tape for backup is two to four times less costly compared to a VTL with de-duplication. Tape for archive is 15 times less costly than disk.

“The archive study showed that the cost of energy alone for the disk system was greater than the total cost of the tape system,” said Mark Pastor, strategic business manager for Quantum.

The reason for these figures, said Pastor, includes reliability (tape drive mean time between failure rates of up to 250,000 hours), the ability to stream data faster than most disk systems, scalability, a shelf life of up to 30 years and minimal energy usage.

Users are enthusiastic, too. Dick Cosby of Estes Express Trucking has been having success with LTO.

“For our 24 x 7 servers, I use disk-to-disk-to-LTO,” said Estes. “It is fast, simple, reliable and a best price-performer.”

The company has 3584 LTO tapes (both LTO-4 and LTO-5) with 12 tape drives. He lists the benefits as ease of use/management, simplicity, low cost, reliability, security and risk avoidance — since multiple copies of data are maintained, not a single copy of a data element, as proposed as a benefit by de-dupe vendors.

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications, including eSecurity Planet and CIO Insight. He is also the editor-in-chief of an international engineering magazine.

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