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Tape technology improvements

The areal density of disk continues to follow Moore’s Law, but tape is keeping pace. LTO-5, the current generation of the Ultrium LTO

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tape format, boasts 3 TB of capacity (compressed) per cartridge and a data transfer rate of 280 MBps (also compressed). Tape media reliability has improved 700x since 1999.

Although other tape technologies persist (e.g., Hewlett-Packard [HP] Co.’s DDS and Oracle Corp.’s StorageTek T10000), LTO is the dominant tape format for open systems computing environments. To date, more than 4 million LTO drives have been shipped and 100 million LTO tapes have been written. Many large organizations have tens of thousands of media elements under active management, giving tape a significant critical mass. And it’s growing: LTO experienced double-digit revenue growth in 2010.

The roadmap for LTO continues its historical improvement curve. LTO-6 is expected sometime in 2012 and has announced specs of 8 TB capacity (with 2.5:1 compression) and a 525 MBps transfer rate (compressed). The LTO roadmap currently extends out to generation 8 with planned specifications of 32 TB of capacity and a 1,180 MBps transfer rate.

For large organizations, automation products are as important as the tape technology itself; the drives are rarely used outside of an automated tape library. So advances in automation are equally as important to a robust tape solution. In many ways, tape automation is following the same path as storage arrays. That is, relatively commoditized components surrounded by sophisticated management and application software.

“We sometimes joke that our libraries are 90% software,” commented Molly Rector, vice president (VP) of marketing at tape library manufacturer Spectra Logic Corp. Given that most libraries today use LTO drives, other capabilities are needed to differentiate products to compete in the market. “Specsmanship around robot speed and arm movements are minor in the scheme of total job execution,” Rector explained. “A library’s ability to proactively detect errors, automatically fail over components and notify administrators of pending errors is far more important.” Spectra Logic libraries are also able to periodically verify the integrity of the managed media.

This was first published in February 2012

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