Quality Awards II: Leading libraries

Although they're the most mechanical part of a backup system, users are fairly satisfied with the reliability of their tape libraries. And despite high-profile consolidation among tape library vendors, the results of the second edition of the Diogenes Labs-Storage magazine Quality Awards largely reinforced last year's results.

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The second edition of the Diogenes Labs-Storage magazine Quality Awards for tape libraries largely reinforced the...

results of last year's survey.

More than any other products in the data center, tape libraries are under assault. Disk-to-disk backup and continuous data protection (CDP) products promise to reduce a company's reliance on tape backup. With all of the focus on eliminating tape, one would assume that users are unhappy with their tape products. But that assumption would be off-base considering the results of the Diogenes Labs-Storage magazine 2006 Quality Awards survey of tape library users.

Almost across the board, the 385 Storage readers who provided more than 500 product evaluations indicated a degree of satisfaction consistent with that of our disk array surveys (see "About the survey"). Users apparently have a high degree of brand loyalty, too, as only 9% of respondents say they own libraries from three or more vendors. User satisfaction is further confirmed by the fact that 80% of respondents say they would buy the same system again if they had to do it over. Indeed, that rate is higher than the typical 75% we've seen in other product categories.

Bob Booth, senior research programmer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has used both midrange and enterprise-class IBM tape libraries. He knew the lower end IBM library couldn't handle the job anymore, so he checked out other vendors' offerings before settling on an IBM TotalStorage 3494 library. "It's been a very good investment for us," says Booth. "I'm madly in love with it."

The last year and a half has seen high-profile consolidation among tape library vendors. Sun Micro-systems Inc. acquired StorageTek, Quantum Corp. acquired ADIC and Tandberg Data Corp. purchased the remains of Exabyte Corp. The subplot in this year's survey is how users have fared under the merged companies (see "Products included in the survey").

"The library works very well," says George M. Adamo, network engineer at Waterbury Hospital in Connecticut of his ADIC Scalar i2000. Right now, he's taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the Quantum purchase. "I'm keeping an eye on them," he says, although ADIC has reassured Adamo that its service organization will be kept intact.

In 2005, StorageTek took top honors among enterprise-class products, and second among midrange products. ADIC was a close second to StorageTek in the enterprise category, but didn't fare well in the midrange category. To be fair, the postmerger environment is the most tumultuous for both users and the combined entity. Nevertheless, stumbles during mergers can create opportunities for other vendors.

The top tape libraries
Could Sun retain StorageTek's leadership after a full year of ownership? In the enterprise tape library category, the answer is an emphatic "Yes." Qualstar Corp., which didn't garner enough responses in 2005 to be statistically valid and was therefore out of consideration for the award, placed second this year. ADIC, which came in a solid second in 2005, was combined with Quantum this year and the joint entity placed fifth. IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. were third and fourth, respectively (see the "Overall rankings" graph within "Rankings of enterprise tape libraries").

Spectra Logic Corp., the smallest privately held vendor to qualify for the award, proved you don't have be a goliath to turn out products customers appreciate. The company also proved that its victory as the midrange Quality Award winner in 2005 was no fluke. Once again, Spectra Logic beat out six other vendors to repeat as the midrange tape library winner. In this category, however, Sun stumbled a bit from 2005. While StorageTek snared second in this category previously, as a Sun entity it fell to fifth place this year. IBM was second, followed by Overland Storage Inc. and HP. In 2005, neither Quantum nor ADIC placed well in the midrange category; the combined entity took sixth place this year. Dell fell to seventh place (out of seven) in 2006 from sixth (out of 10) in 2005, and was the only company to post a sub-5.0 overall score this year (see the "Overall rankings" graph within "Rankings of midrange tape libraries").

But that doesn't suggest that all Dell tape library customers were disenchanted. For example, Terry Nixon, network analyst at Oakland, CA-based Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream Inc., says that using a Dell PowerVault Tape Backup 132T to replace an ADIC Scalar 24 in his backup environment has yielded only good results. "We originally had a loaner from Dell and it seemed to work pretty well," says Nixon. "It seemed more stable than the ADIC, even though it looks identical."

Achieving the highest overall scores in a highly competitive market isn't easy. Sun and Spectra Logic have demonstrated the ability to do it two years in a row.

Sales-force competence
In all of our previous surveys, we noted a direct correlation between a vendor's rating for sales-force competence and its overall rating. No vendor has won the Quality Award without placing first or second in the category. However, this year's enterprise tape award has proven to be the exception to that rule. Although Sun was the overall winner, it fell to fourth place in the sales-force competence category. Often, post-merger sales organizations are reorganized such that customers are assigned unfamiliar representatives. So falloff in this area isn't too surprising. Qualstar was top rated in this category with a score of 5.82, while Sun garnered a still-respectable 5.40. Quantum, which placed fifth overall, took second among enterprise products in the sales-force category with its second highest category score (5.47). It's perhaps a testament to Sun's product quality that its other category scores were strong enough to overcome this miscue (see the "Sales-force competence" graph within "Rankings of enterprise tape libraries").

Quantum's strength in this category may be attributable--at least in part--to aggressive pricing in the wake of its 2000 acquisition of ATL. "A lot of the driving point was cost and a lot of the other vendors seemed to be cost-prohibitive at the time," says Tad Martin, Unix systems administrator at Iridium Satellite LLC in Tempe, AZ. "I think that was Quantum trying to get ATL integrated with their whole product line, and that kind of played to my benefit."

In the midrange group, Spectra Logic topped all other sales-force scores with a 5.79. However, nearly 70% of Spectra systems are purchased through VARs, so the company's score is reflective of the quality of its resellers and its ability to recruit, train and support them. IBM, which was second overall in the midrange category, was a close runner-up with a 5.77 for sales competence (see the "Sales-force competence" graph within "Rankings of midrange tape libraries"). Fifty-one percent of IBM midrange systems are purchased through VARs. And while 53.7% of Sun's midrange systems were purchased through resellers, it placed seventh in this category. Ironically, Sun's 5.19 in the sales-force category was higher than its overall midrange score (5.18). Spectra Logic's best score in this category was a 6.00 in response to the statement "The vendor's sales support team is knowledgeable."

Having other equipment installed at a user's site can also give a vendor a leg up in the sales process, especially for those that have end-to-end product lines. "Most of our shop is HP hardware," says Ray Littlefield, IT storage administrator at Washington, DC-based Conservation International, "so our SAN is HP gear." With HP servers and EVA storage arrays on the floor, Littlefield was more than comfortable adding two HP StorageWorks MSL Series tape libraries to his configuration.

The actual hardware or software products aren't the only sales issues for storage managers to consider. Who you buy your product support from, and under what conditions, can have a strong bearing on an overall product experience. When the storage contract on its IBM TotalStorage 3494 came due at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Booth says a lower bid from another company led the university to switch support services. "They came in $25,000 less," says Booth, a savings the purchasing department couldn't pass up. But, apparently, the new service company's capabilities were oversold by a much-too-eager sales rep. "They don't have any engineers in town and they don't have a parts stock," says Booth. And almost immediately, the company farmed out the service to a third party. Although the university is happy with the third-party engineering support, "it's been almost a year now that we've been dealing with trying to get the call routing straightened out," notes Booth.

Product features
Sun regained its form in the enterprise product features category with a 5.74 score, the highest of any product in the survey (see the "Product features" graph within "Rankings of enterprise tape libraries"). It received a 5.95 for the statement "Overall, this product's features meet my needs" and a 5.90 for "This product scales well." HP, the second-place finisher in this category, received its highest score (5.83) for "This product meets my performance needs." Qualstar, which placed second overall, fell from grace in this category with a 4.99. Apparently, users were most disappointed in Qualstar's user interface, giving the company a 4.19 for the statement "This product's user interface meets my needs."

In 2005, Spectra Logic swept the Quality Award by winning every midrange category. But despite repeating as the overall winner, it couldn't repeat such a feat this time. Overland Storage topped the midrange field with a 5.63 for product features, barely edging out IBM's 5.62. Spectra Logic rated third with a 5.58 (see the "Product features" graph within "Rankings of midrange tape libraries"). Overland users thought most highly of its system interoperability, giving it a very high 6.33 for "This product is interoperable with other vendor's products." IBM users felt that interoperability was also its system's strength, although not quite as strongly (5.89). Spectra Logic was best rated for the statement "Overall, this product's features meet my needs" (5.77).

Because they're largely mechanical devices, some types of manual operations can play an important role in product selection. "We wanted a library that offered very quick access, where you can take out a bulk of tapes fairly quickly," says Conservation International's Littlefield, so that tape-handling chores would be facilitated. The HP StorageWorks MSL Series met its requirements. "With just one button, it opens up both doors and you can take out all the cartridges out of the library in just a few seconds," says Littlefield.

Initial product quality
Among enterprise products, the initial product quality section saw the second lowest high score (Sun at 5.58) and the second highest low score (Quantum's 5.20) of any category to produce the tightest range of any category (see the "Initial product quality" graph within "Rankings of enterprise tape libraries"). The highest rating was given to Qualstar for the statement "This product offers good value for the money" (5.89). Sun also received a relatively high score of 5.79 for this statement. When we asked users to respond to the statement "This product requires very little daily intervention," Sun came out on top with a 5.64; HP wasn't far behind with a 5.56 for this same statement.

Among midrange products, Spectra Logic topped the section with it second highest score (5.96) (see the "Initial product quality" graph within "Rankings of midrange tape libraries"). In fact, four out of the five statements posed in the initial product quality category received a score of 6.0 or higher. Spectra Logic's 6.08 score for "This product offers good value for the money," was a great one, but actually came in second to Overland's 6.15. This statement score paced Overland to a second-place ranking in this category. Other strong areas for Spectra Logic included "This product is easy to use" and "I am satisfied with the level of professional services needed for this product," each of which received a 6.08.

The "initial" part of this category name emphasizes how installation and setup can set expectations for a product even before it's fully implemented into its production role. Iridium Satellite's Martin was pleased with how quickly he had their Quantum M2500 up and running. "It was less than a day and this thing was rolling," says Martin. "It was a real slick setup."

Product reliability
The bellwether question of our survey--"Patches can be applied nondisruptively"--normally sees a dip in scores, and this survey followed the trend. Nevertheless, Spectra Logic had an unusually high 5.69 score to this statement among midrange libraries. HP was tops among enterprise products with a 5.28, while Sun was second with a 5.19. Spectra Logic's high score, however, was offset by a 5.08 for "This product's error handling is easy and intuitive;" HP also received a low 4.89 for this statement.

"Things like firmware and stuff like that, you can go to the Web site," says Conservation International's Littlefield of his HP StorageWorks MSL library. "It detects what type of device you have and firmware for that device is downloaded," he says. "You can do regular maintenance and firmware upgrades very smoothly."

Neither HP nor Spectra Logic were tops in this category. Those honors went to Sun (enterprise) and IBM (midrange) with identical 5.57 scores (see the "Product reliability" graphs within "Rankings of enterprise tape libraries" and "Rankings of midrange tape libraries"). Sun's enterprise libraries received the highest rating for "This product requires very few unplanned patches" (5.94). It also had a 5.81 for "This product meets my service-level requirements."

IBM's midrange systems topped this category on the strength of a 6.04 for "This product requires very few unplanned patches." IBM users also rewarded the company with a 5.92 for "This product meets my service-level requirements." Consistent with other products, IBM's lowest rating in this section was a 5.04 for "This product's error handling is easy and intuitive."

Technical support
Technical support is rarely a differentiator among products in our surveys, but Spectra Logic's 6.23 in the midrange category was almost a half-point higher than IBM's 5.79 (see the "Technical support" graph within "Rankings of midrange tape libraries"). Spectra Logic's score was also buoyed by a 6.54 for "The vendor's third-party partners are knowledgeable" and a 6.23 for "The vendor's support personnel are knowledgeable." It also received a 6.38 for the statement "The vendor provides adequate training." IBM's midrange support rated a 6.17 for the statement "Vendor supplies support as contractually specified."

Prior to its merger with Sun, StorageTek was well known for its exemplary support. That measure of excellence has apparently been maintained in the postmerger organization: Sun won the enterprise category with a 5.75 score. IBM and HP, also known for excellent support, weren't far behind with a 5.65 and 5.64, respectively (see the "Technical support" graph within "Rankings of enterprise tape libraries").

Choosing a service plan can be a key decision, too. Wanting to ensure support for its ADIC Scalar i2000, Waterbury Hospital's Adamo contracted with ADIC for its highest level service plan--and it has paid off. "They're willing to come out any day of the week," says Adamo. "We have a contract, that's why."

Would you buy again?
Vendor loyalty among tape library users appears to be unusually high. Of the 94 respondents for Sun's enterprise systems, 90.4% said they'd buy the system again (see the "Would you buy this product again?" graph within "Rankings of enterprise tape libraries"). This percentage was second only to HP's 94.4% among all enterprise/midrange products. Among midrange users, 88.7% of IBM users would buy again, as would 84.6% of Spectra Logic's users (see the "Would you buy this product again?" within "Rankings of midrange tape libraries"). Despite the push toward technology alternatives for tape, we expect organizations to buy these systems for some time to come.

About the survey
The Diogenes Labs-Storage magazine Quality Awards identify and recognize products that have proven their quality and reliability in actual use. The results are derived from a survey of qualified Storage readers who assessed products in five main categories: sales-force competence, product features, initial product quality, product reliability and technical support. Our methodology incorporates statistically valid polling that eliminates market share as a factor. Our objective is to identify the most reliable products regardless of vendor name, reputation or size. Products are rated on a 1.0-8.0 scale, where 8.0 is the most favorable score. For this year's tape library survey, 385 readers provided 502 valid product evaluations. Our survey has a 4% margin of error with a 95% confidence factor.

This was first published in January 2007

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