Optical and tape drives duel for archiving dominance

Vendors may push alternative archive technologies, but disk drives are getting high praise from the low-end market

Is anyone surprised that vendors are coming up with new backup solutions for the SMEs (small-medium enterprises)? I'm not, considering the growing opportunity for smaller storage systems -- but don't think for a minute that large enterprise customers have been forgotten in the mad rush to impress SMEs.

Take, for example, the UDO (Ultra Density Optical) Archive Appliance that Plasmon will announce in the next few days at CeBIT 2006, in Hannover, Germany. (Here's a quick recap o UDO.) Describing the new Plasmon appliance is easy: Imagine an array of SATA drives in RAID configuration to expedite data transfers before actually moving your backups to the optical media.

In fact, this new appliance combines an NAS and an optical library, and you can also define policies that control automated file movement. During my conversation with Mike Koclanes, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Plasmon, I learned that in the past two years the company and its partners shipped over 3.5PB (yes, petabytes) of UDO capacity, which indicates a growing customer interest for archiving solutions based on this technology.

However, not everybody agrees on using optical media for archiving. Quantum, for one, is still betting on tape for affordable archiving in a tiered environment -- no surprise there, given the company's tape-heavy history. In fact, the vendor just made a three-legged announcement, introducing the newest high-end successor to the SDLT (super digital linear tape) drive, a security key that acts as an interim protection for tape media (until encryption becomes available), and new GoVault backup devices for entry-level customers.

The technical specs of the new drive, dubbed DLT-S4 (note the acronym change from SDLT), aren't a surprise. It can natively store up to 800GB on a single S4 reel at a maximum transfer rate of 60 MBps. You may choose among 4Gb Fibre Channel, old Ultra 320 SCSI, and Serial SCSI connectivity. Need backward compatibility with two previous generations? Granted!

As I mentioned, Quantum is positioning the DLT-S4 as a high-capacity, low-cost archive device, and they are pricing the drive at about what you would pay for a device with half the capacity, the LTO-3 (Linear Tape-Open). In fact, the MSRP for a standalone DLT-S4 drive starts at less than $4,500, and you can expect to pay around $100 for an S4 cartridge, or about 6 cents per gigabyte of capacity, the lowest in its range.

To further sweeten the DLT-S4 deal, Quantum is embedding the Dashboard of DLTSage, its tape-management application, into the device's Windows drivers. In addition to monitoring and diagnostic duties, the Dashboard makes it possible to set up a security key directly from Windows Device Manager to prevent unauthorized access to media created on that tape.

Is the DLT-S4 another attempt by Quantum to regain the market shares lost to LTO drives? That's the way I see it. But probably the most surprising part of Quantum's three-part announcement is the GoVault drive, essentially another interesting effort to replace tapes with disk drives for backups.

The GoVault is essentially a docking station with a 3.5 or 5.25 form factor that you mount inside an entry level server via SATA ports. In that dock unit, you can load cartridges that are basically 2.5" disk drives, available in capacities of 40GB, 80GB, and 120GB, with larger capacity cartridges expected in the future. Obviously, having larger capacity media minimizes the possibility of outgrowing the backup solution, which is a most dreadful inconvenience for entry-level customers using tapes.

Quantum suggests that the affordable GoVault (price starts at $299) is or will be supported by major ISVs. In addition, customers can use it as any other drive, dragging and dropping files to protect them and setting a password to prevent unwanted data disclosures.

I am running out of space (and probably exceeding your attention span), but I can't close without mentioning two other interesting solutions where disk drives take the role of tapes.

First, the revolutionary Ulysses, from Imation, which replaces LTO drives and media with compatible, equivalent gizmos based on 2.5" disk drive technology.

Second, a new desktop autoloader from Iomega based on its popular REV drives, the REV Loader 280. Priced at about $1,000 for the loader plus one cartridge, the Loader 280 for now tops out at 35GB per cartridge. However, the REV is also based on 2.5" drive technology and, according to Iomega, should have larger capacity in the future.

While I've only mentioned three vendors touting disk drives instead of tapes for data protection, I can assure you that other vendors are still proposing a reel for entry-level customers -- but we'll have to explore that in another column.

Join me on The Storage Network blog with questions or comments.

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