Sony E1300 tape drive sates hunger for large servings of storage

SAIT technology and WORM capabilities strong selling points for pricey storage solution

As do other vendors of tape storage drives and media, Sony faces the reduced market appeal of tape-based data protection. Relentless increases in the demand for storage capacity, combined with the availability of ever faster, disk-based alternatives have resulted in waning customer interest.

To counter that challenge, Sony has extended the existing AIT (Advanced Intelligent Tape) technology, based on helical scan recording for 8 mm media, to support half-inch tapes. The result of that alchemy is SAIT (Super AIT), a generation of drives and media that sets a new record with a jaw-dropping 500GB of native capacity on a single tape cartridge.

SAIT features data transfer rates that are faster than those of any previous Sony tape drive, and it challenges the performance of LTO (linear tape open) and SDLT (super digital linear tape) devices. Recently Sony added WORM capability to its SAIT drives, which enables them to compete with more expensive and slower MO (magneto-optical) devices in the data archiving space.

After reviewing Sony’s new SAIT e1300, an external single-drive SCSI unit (the e1300 is also available with FC interfaces), I am completely sold on its exceptional storage capacity and speedy transfer rate, but I’m still suffering from the sticker shock.

Stretching capacity to the max

With hard disk drives of 250GB and larger becoming commonplace, the SAIT cartridge’s native capacity of a half-terabyte may not seem overly impressive. Naturally, tape vendors continue to struggle to boost capacity and performance. In fact, Sony is already working on the next generation of SAIT, which should double native capacity to a full 1TB per cartridge and improve performance commensurately.

The Sony SAIT e1300 hides the rather bulky SAIT drive under a stylish, polished shell that is 8 inches wide, 4 inches tall, and 14 inches deep. The back of the unit hosts power and SCSI or FC connectors, address-setting controls, plus a serial port for diagnostics. An elegant see-through panel in front protects the cartridge opening from dust. Pushing a button unlocks the panel and provides access to additional controls, including power-on and tape eject buttons.

Connecting the e1300 to my Hewlett-Packard ProLiant ML350 server running Windows Server 2003, and having Computer Associates BrightStor ArcServe 11 recognize the drive, was a smooth ride. From there, I immediately moved to clocking some performance test runs.

I measured backup transfer rates, which proved very close to Sony’s published specs of 30MBps without compression. For instance, backing up 10GB of Microsoft Office documents took a little more than seven minutes, averaging about 24MBps — not a bad result on my plain vanilla server.

Storage-friendly WORM

It’s no mystery that the overall transfer rate jumps through the roof when tape-managed compression kicks in. In fact, testing with data content that compresses well, the e1300 clocked as fast as 66MBps on a 25GB size backup. As usual, warnings apply: Different data content or equipment settings could produce slightly different results.

I had to run several long jobs to prove the point, but the e1300 swallowed an astounding 900GB backup almost entirely on a single cartridge, a performance that was easy to repeat and that sets SAIT well ahead of other technologies in capacity while still delivering comparable performance.

Naturally, twice the capacity comes at an understandably higher price. In fact, the $12,600 retail price for the e1300 is more than twice that of a single Quantum SDLT600 drive. But this interesting drive from Sony offers more than just great capacity and performance: It boasts WORM capability.

SAIT WORM technology prevents erasure of tape contents via a combination of special drive firmware (older drives are upgradable) and dedicated cartridges (slightly more expensive than ordinary SAIT cartridges). In essence, you can write multiple files to a WORM cartridge but cannot delete or alter the contents. Demonstrable WORM capability can be a lifesaver when a judge demands proof that data has not been tampered with. Currently, IBM, Quantum, Sony, and StorageTek offer WORM capabilities in their offerings.

Updating the firmware of my e1300 to the WORM-enabled version was easy: I obtained the new code, which is free, and a diagnostic application from Sony. After a few quick and simple steps, my tape drive was capable of creating both erasable backups on normal cartridges and protected backups on WORM cartridges.

After updating the drive, I ran similar backups and restores on the WORM media and witnessed no measurable difference in performance. All my attempts to format, erase, or rewrite WORM cartridges were, as expected, unsuccessful.

At the end of my evaluation I have only praise for the technical characteristics of SAIT, but suggesting a typical user target for this unique technology is challenging. In fact, price locates those units in a spot between high-end enterprise units from IBM and StorageTek and midtier solutions such as SDLT and LTO. Nevertheless, Sony has often compared SAIT to the latter technologies, a dichotomy that can be confusing.

Yet customers who need the exceptional features of SAIT won’t be confused. If your business requires archiving an ocean of data or preserving data against tampering, you won’t find more capacious or reliable vessels than Sony SAIT tape drives.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Interoperability (15.0%)
Reliability (20.0%)
Performance (20.0%)
Management (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Sony SAIT e1300 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.7
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