In November of 1997, the Linear Tape Open Technology (LTO) initiative was announced by three of the world’s largest technology giants: Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Seagate. The fact that three fierce competitors would get together to collaborate on a technology might have seemed odd, but in the face of stiff competition from other proprietary tape formats such as DLT, the LTO initiative was established as a response to the market’s need for an open format. The major objective of the group was to come up with a solution that would provide enterprise-wide data protection by accommodating a large range of tape storage requirements, from single server to complex networked environments, in a fast-access and high capacity format. Out of these unprecedented brainstorming sessions, in which some of the most brilliant minds in the storage industry participated, came both the LTO Ultrium format (single-reel; high capacity; end loading) and the LTO Accellis format (dual-reel; fast access; mid-loading).
According to the LTO specifications, the Accellis format was designed for quick data access and specifically slated for automated environments where it could provide tape storage solutions for a wide range of ‘on-line’ data inquiry and read-intensive applications. At the other end of the storage need spectrum, the Ultrium format was optimized for high capacity storage where it could be used for backup, restore, and archive applications — in either a stand-alone or an automated environment and was designed to store large amounts of data. From the beginning, Ultrium was quick to catch on, and has continued its growth and acceptance in the industry to the point where it now garners about a 70 percent market share. In contrast, the Accellis format was never given the same vote of confidence by tape buyers, and has, in effect, been put on the shelf. Given the fanfare that surrounded the announcement of both formats, this has left many people asking a very good question. What ever happened to Accellis?
To find out, we spoke to some of those involved in the inception and ongoing development of the LTO standard, including Bruce Master, program manager for tape product management at IBM, Stephen Holmes, LTO business manager at Hewlett Packard, and Brad Renfree, director of strategic management at Seagate.
According to Master, shortly after the LTO initiative was first announced, disk prices started to drop dramatically, so emerging markets such as data mining and transactional processing turned to disk as a medium for storage rather than to a new tape technology. Although this did not actually ‘kill’ Accellis, it was more or less responsible for putting it on the shelf.
“Customers had an introduction to the two specs offered by the LTO initiative and ultimately they chose the Ultrium format because of its high performance and disaster recovery capabilities,” says Master. “In addition, the Ultrium format minimizes the common tradeoffs made between reliability, capacity, and date transfer rates,” says Renfree.
And, according to Holmes, at the time the three technology giants were developing the specs, even though the industry as a whole was looking at the need for the Accellis format, the three tech giants soon found out that fast access tape in open systems was not going to work out the way they first envisioned it would.
“The Accellis format was designed as a fast access tape and customers were more interested in high capacity and performance, which is why the Ultrium format did take off,” says Masters. Both Renfree and Holmes concur with Masters. With that said though, all three also agree that new industry offerings continue to expand user’s choices and that the Accellis format may (after-all) play a part in future generation fast-access tape technologies.
“We had a few requests for Accellis in the very early stages of the announcement, but all of the interest has been in the Ultrium format”, says Renfree.
According to Masters, even though the Accellis format did not achieve industry acceptance, the goal of the LTO initiative was to provide users of tape technology, including those in the SAN market, with a leading-edge tape format based on proven technologies that provide choices, not trade-offs, and the initiative did do this.
Holmes goes on to say that the original premise of the LTO initiative was to embrace and extend proven tape technologies as the foundation for best-of-breed products and to provide accessible technology specifications through open licensing. “I think that with everything that has happened in the storage industry, we have accomplished the original premise of the initiative,” says Masters.
Renfree says that the three companies wanted to enable product development by multiple vendors in order to create a competitive market. “And,” he continued, “we wanted to establish format verification testing procedures that would help assure data integrity and cartridge interchangeability”. Masters, Holmes, and Renfree all agree that the plan was to define a credible future growth path to protect customer investments, a plan which they say has also been accomplished.
“The entire development of the two formats was amazing to watch,” says Masters, “because there was a large portion of the industry that thought our three companies would never be able to work together – thus never be able to pull the initiative off.” As history has shown us, the industry was wrong. According to Holmes, the three companies created a virtual organization with executives from each company and functioned as an organization. “The fact is that individually we would never have been able to do this,” says Renfree. “And as a business case,” he continued, “it’s a very telling story of how companies who are fierce competitors can work together.”
“Tape continues to be the cornerstone of the enterprise storage plan,” says Holmes. “And, just because the Accellis format did not originally receive the ‘thumbs up’ from network tape buyers, this does not mean that we won’t see a rebirth of Accellis in the future. “In addition,” says Masters, “because the LTO consists of a tape format specification and process for licensing LTO technology to other vendors and certifying that the media and devices these vendors create are compliant with the specification, the result has been a solid technology foundation with plenty of room for licensees to create products in a competitive environment.”
Accellis may have not gained the market share which its creators had first envisioned, but the LTO products as a whole are a remarkable piece of cooperative engineering between three of the industry’s most fierce competitors. And, as the Ultrium format continues through its generations, storage customers will continue to be able to keep pace with their ever-changing data storage needs using an open standard. And who knows, as storage needs continue to evolve and develop, maybe one day we will see the rebirth of Accellis.