Tape Storage Competition Gets Fierce

Sony, Quantum and HP raise the bar for tape drives.

During the past year, several tape products have entered the market that increase performance and capacity of this already-mature backup medium.

And with new competition looming on the horizon, these high-capacity products arrival is all the more timely. In addition to the tight competition among tape drive vendors, competitive pressure is building from disk-based backup products.

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eWEEK Labs recently tested state-of-the-art tape drives from Hewlett-Packard Co., Quantum Corp. and Sony Electronics Inc. and found that all three provide comparable performance and noteworthy new capabilities.

Sonys SAIT-1 tape can now hold as much as 1.3 terabytes of compressed data in a single cartridge. This is all the more impressive considering that, just a few years ago, IT staffs needed a robot and a couple of tapes to back up that much data.

Prior to this generation of tape technology, IT managers often made speed and capacity their top priorities when building enterprise backup infrastructures. With these new products, however, IT staffs now have other factors to consider when making their storage purchases.

In addition to Sonys SAIT-1 drive, we looked at Quantums SDLT 600 and an LTO-2 Ultrium tape drive from HP, all of which are available now. Although each of these tape technologies is faster than its forebears and each provides larger capacity, its the new features, such as WORM capabilities and improved diagnostics, that could matter most in the hotly contested tape market.

Bigger and Faster

We focused primarily on uncompressible data to get our base-line performance numbers; the speed and capacity that IT managers get will depend largely on the data set they are trying to back up. We highly recommend IT managers test the drives with their data loads to get a truer representation of expected drive performance.

For example, an IT manager backing up mostly text files and compressible document files will have much speedier backups than an IT manager backing up compressed data such as media files and archive files. We used roughly 10GB of compressed sound and video files to get the native performance for each drive in our tests.

The test server was an HP ProLiant DL560 rack-mount server with four Intel Corp. Xeon processors and 1GB of RAM, running Windows Server 2003. We used an Adaptec Inc. SCSI Card 29320A-R to connect tape drives to the test server. For backup software, we used Computer Associates International Inc.s BrightStor ARCserve Backup Release 11 for Windows.

We found relatively little difference in performance among the drives, and we believe companies should weigh other factors before making a tape technology decision.

Quantums SDLT 600 tape drive was the fastest in our compressed-data backup tests, clocking 30.73MB per second, although it was only marginally faster than HPs LTO-2 drive, which ran at 29.5MB per second.

The slowest drive was the Sony SAIT-1, which logged 25.53MB-per-second performance in our tests. However, the small differences in backup times among the three drives probably wouldnt matter unless a company had to back up an extremely large amount of data in a short time.

In terms of capacity per tape, Sonys SAIT-1, with its 500GB native (and 1.5GB compressed) capacity per cartridge, is at the top of the pack.

Sony officials said the company will improve cartridge capacity up to 1 terabyte per tape natively by 2006, which should keep it at the top of the capacity list for at least a few years.

The benefit of having such high capacity per cartridge is that IT staff need not make as many tape changes during large backup jobs. For example, a single SAIT-1 tape has the capacity of three LTO-2 tapes.

Capacity per cartridge also increases the overall storage density of data libraries, which should be attractive to IT managers presiding over fast-growing data stores.

The Worm Advantage

The new worm functionality in Sonys SAIT-1 drive can be enabled using a firmware upgrade available from the company. With this upgrade in place, we easily added WORM to a standard SAIT-1 drive.

The add-on WORM option should make the SAIT-1 drive more attractive to IT managers aiming to comply with record-keeping regulations such as Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 17 a-4, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Currently, many organizations use technologies such as magneto-optical storage to take care of WORM needs. However, magneto-optical drives have small storage capacities and slow performance relative to tape technologies. Their lack of speed and space could give WORM-enabled tape an opportunity to crawl into this market space.

WORM functionality has already been added to high-end tape drives from companies including Fujitsu Storage Technologies Ltd. Were glad to see it becoming available in a midrange drive and hope that Quantum, HP and others follow Sonys lead by adding WORM as a standard option in their tape drive lines. To date, neither HP nor Quantum has announced plans to do so.

The lack of diagnostic tools for monitoring tape drives and media has been one of the biggest headaches for IT managers because drive and media failures often occur without any warning.

Considering that the failure of one piece of media is usually enough to corrupt an entire backup set, the lack of diagnostic tools is something we hope all tape vendors eventually will add to their drives.

Quantums DLTSage addresses this by including diagnostic tools that provide useful information that can help IT managers predict media and drive failures before they happen. For example, we used DLTSage to check the health of our SDLT 600 tape drive and the media we were using.

Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar can be reached at henry_baltazar@ziffdavis.com.

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