Tape Capacity Wars Heat Up

The need for increased capacity continues to be the name of the game in the tape storage arena. In May 2002, IBM demonstrated a tape solution with 1TB of storage capacity in its enterprise-class 3590 form factor and presented a time line of when the technology would become available to the commercial market. Recently, Sony stepped into the picture. Last month, Sony released the first generation of its Super Advanced Intelligent Tape (SAIT) technology to its OEM partners. SAIT-1 can store 500GB of data in native format and 1.3TB of compressed data, uses half-inch media, and has an industry-standard 5.25" form factor. According to John Woelbern, director of Sony OEM sales, products that use SAIT-1 technology should be available late spring 2003.

Sony believes SAIT is a new class of tape storage and has published an ambitious development road map for SAIT. By the time the Sony rolls out SAIT-4 (in about 6 years), one tape cartridge will have 4TB of native capacity and 10.4TB of compressed capacity. By 2010, Sony says that SAIT native capacity will scale as much as 10TB on one half-inch cartridge. And, Woelbern tells me, "We aren't pushing the envelope yet."

SAIT achieves such capacity by using Advanced Metal Evaporated tape technology, which helps SAIT to avoid the limitations imposed by metal particle-based coatings. SAIT also is a helical scan drive and uses tapes that have higher densities than linear drives. Although linear tape drives let you more easily add read/write heads to increase the throughput and data transfer rates, Woelbern argued that SAIT has competitive data transfer rates. He added that at any point in the development process over the next several years, SAIT technology should provide 2.5 times the capacity of linear technology drives.

SAIT's debut is only the latest step in the ongoing vendor competition to increase tape storage capacity and to reduce the cost of storage per gigabyte. The most high-profile battle has been waged in the mid-market arena, in which Linear Tape-Open (LTO), a format championed by Hewlett Packard (HP), IBM, and Seagate Removable Storage Solutions (RSS), has faced off against Quantum's SuperDLtape (SDLT) technology. According to Bob Abraham, market researcher and president of Freeman Reports, twice as many LTO drives as SDLT drives shipped in 2001--a year in which LTO was the only tape category to show revenue growth.

Part of LTO's strength came from its well-publicized technology road map. Second-generation LTO drives debuted in April 2002. Two more generations are on the drawing board.

In recent weeks, SDLT has struck back and published its own four-generation product road map. Quantum plans to introduce a new generation of technology every 15 to 18 months. Quantum believes that the SDLT 320 is the highest performance, highest capacity midrange tape drive currently available. The company plans to introduce the SDLT 600 by fourth quarter 2003, before the third generation of LTO technology is unveiled. The SDLT will have 300GB of native capacity and 600GB of compressed capacity. By 2006, Quantum plans to introduce the SDLT 2400, with 1.2TB of native capacity and 2.4TB of compressed capacity.

The low end of the tape market is also seeing capacity improvements. Quantum has laid out a product road map for DLT tape, and Sony is aggressively developing its AIT tape technology, which targets low-end to midrange applications.

The competition to create solutions capable of huge capacities isn't just for bragging rights. To remain competitive, tape technology must increase its capacity and reduce its cost per gigabyte at a rate that equals or exceeds the rates achieved by disk drive manufacturers. Hard Disk Drive (HDD) technology is already elbowing its way into certain applications that were once seen as serving to preserve tape technology. For example, HDDs are establishing a foothold as a backup medium in less data-intense settings. In contrast, more data-rich environments are using tape technology. According to Gartner, Dataquest will ship more than 450,000 tape drives with storage capacities of more than 100GB by 2006.

Several factors are driving the need for more storage capacity. Companies are generating more data, and more types of data, including rich multimedia data, need to be stored. Also, organizations face ever-increasing requirements to store large amounts of data for longer periods of time. Given all the factors, tape storage manufacturers clearly understand the challenges they face.

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