Tape-Market Wars Have Unanticipated Outcome

The year 2001 was supposed to be the time for hot new technology in the high-performance tape market. But according to a new Freeman Reports study, the year hasn't worked out that way.

For years, Quantum's DLT format has dominated the high-performance tape sector. To date, Quantum reports that it has shipped more than 1.65 million DLT tape drives and more than 68 million DLT tape cartridges—about 38 percent of the total drive market. But Quantum has licensed DLT technology to only third-party manufacturer (Tandberg Data in Oslo, Norway), and some clients feel uncomfortable using technology that offers so few sourcing options. Moreover, with the growth of Network Attached Storage (NAS) and Storage Area Networks (SANs), large-capacity tape-storage systems are becoming an increasingly important part of the technology in many data centers. Although unglamorous and old (tape storage has been around since the 1950s), tape is still the most cost-effective and safest storage media available. According to industry statistics, users have integrated more than 30 percent of all tape drives into libraries, which companies use increasingly as their data storage needs grow.

Consequently, a consortium of companies—led by Hewlett Packard (HP), IBM, and Seagate Technologies—sensed an opportunity and set out to knock Quantum off the top of the high-performance-tape hill. The consortium developed an alternative technology called Linear Tape-Open (LTO), a super-high-performance high-performance drive. The group agreed to license the technology to anybody who met its criteria—about 29 manufacturers so far.

Last spring, Quantum responded with a super-high-performance drive that it dubbed the Super DLT, which should have set the groundwork for a good, old-fashioned technology war. Proponents of LTO claim that their technology is more cost effective, compatible with more network configurations, and open. Quantum argues that Super DLT is faster, has higher capacity, and is backwards-compatible with existing drives.

We've seen this scenario before—Betamax versus VHS, Apple versus DOS—a superior, proprietary technology squares off against a competitive, open technology. However, according to Robert Abraham, author of the Freeman Reports, adherents of both formats have their work cut out if they hope to gain market share. Abraham said, "The compact super drives, particularly Ultrium (the current LTO format) and Super DLT, will meet surprising resistance—despite their price and size advantages—as they attempt to elbow their way into high-end applications long dominated by incumbent high-performance tape technologies." He also reported that the sales of high-performance drives (e.g., IBM's Magstar, Sony's DFT, StorageTek's 9840) are demonstrating remarkable resiliency.

Several factors contribute to the slower-than-anticipated acceptance of the super-compact tape-drive technology. StorageTek 9840/9940 drives offer fast access and virtual storage—good for demanding applications. Moreover, during the past year, fibre-channel interface drives have become commonplace. (Fibre channel is the preferred interface for SANs.) Also, because tape libraries are modular and scalable, users often don't migrate to new technology as quickly as they might with other applications.

The introduction of LTO and Super DLT drives comes at a time when the tape-drive sector is in turmoil, and, according to the Freeman Reports, desktop tape-drive use declines and unit sales plunge. Despite the slower-than-expected ramp-up, however, the future looks bright for both super- and high-performance compact drives. As companies continue to adopt SAN and NAS technology, users should fuel overall growth in this sector during the next several years.

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