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SMB backup: To tape or not to tape?

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LOOKING FOR FURTHER evidence of tape's impending demise? Consider this: Last month, IBM announced TSM Express, a small- to medium-sized business (SMB) version of Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM), which costs a mere $195 per processor and backs up only to disk.

The target market for TSM Express doesn't typically have fancy tape automation equipment or staff to swap tapes at night, explains Tricia Jiang, IBM's TotalStorage technical evangelist. "We talked to our customers and they don't want to have someone in at midnight mounting tapes," she says.

Of course, for disaster recovery purposes, it's possible to manually make tape copies of the backups as an offline process, says Jiang, "at the administrator's leisure."

In a separate announcement, IBM will have a new disk-based backup offering for its xSeries servers: Quantum's newly launched GoVault. Inherited through its Certance acquisition, the GoVault "dock" comes in 3.5-inch or 5.25-inch form factors, and uses special ruggedized 2.5-inch disk cartridges in capacities of 40GB, 80GB or 120GB. A GoVault dock, plus one 40GB cartridge, has a price of $299. Quantum is encouraging GoVault users to use at least three cartridges as part of an offsite disk-rotation scheme.

By and large, the true SMB has given up on tape, says Mark O'Malley, Quantum's manager, strategic marketing, storage devices, hence the company's decision to launch a disk-based product. "It's not like we're cannibalizing

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our tape business." And IBM "is seeing the same thing we are," he says. "The attach rate of tape on their low-end servers has fallen off dramatically."

Those lapsed tape users may explain the surge in sales of external USB disk drives like Maxtor's OneTouch, which skyrocketed to 14 million units sold last year, according to IDC. Analysts estimate that approximately 10% of those are used for backup.

But using USB drives for backup has its shortcomings, says O'Malley. For one thing, they're bulky. For another, backup apps don't like it when a drive letter disappears, which is what happens when you unplug a USB drive. In contrast, GoVault presents a consistent drive letter to the backup application and the cartridges aren't much bigger than a deck of cards.

So while IBM and Quantum seem to be writing off tape as a primary backup target for very small shops, other tape drive manufacturers have yet to throw in the towel and are falling over themselves to produce a viable economical alternative to the leading entry-level tape drive, the 4mm DDS/DAT.

A DAT72 drive costs approximately $700, features 3MB/sec of native throughput and cartridges with a compressed capacity of 72GB; they're available from Hewlett-Packard, Quantum and Sony. The next generation DAT-160 drive is planned for this summer, says David Roger, worldwide product marketing manager for tape at Hewlett-Packard, the only current DAT licensee that has thus far committed to the next version. In lieu of DAT, Sony continues to market its AIT format for the low end, while Quantum is pushing its DLT-V4 and aforementioned GoVault.

As of last month, there are two other low-end, low-cost tape drives on the market. Exabyte has a new version of its VXA drive, the VXA-172, which at $699 has a native speed of 12MB/sec (or up to 86GB/hour using 2:1 compression) and a compressed capacity of 172GB using Exabyte X10 media. That media has an average street price of approximately $29 per cartridge or $0.17/GB. And if you outgrow the VXA-172's capacity, you can perform an electronic upgrade to a VXA-320 drive for $349. Exabyte also announced the VXA-172 PacketLoader, a 10-cartridge autoloader priced at $1,699.

In terms of drive and media price, as well as capacity and performance, "it's the first tape drive that's truly competitive with DDS," says Kelly Beavers, Exabyte's co-founder and VP of product marketing.

Tandberg Data announced a half-height LTO-1 drive, the 220LTO, which Tandberg Data's executive VP and general manager Ken Cruden expects will have a street price of less than $1,000. Admittedly, that's $200 to $300 more than a DAT-72 drive, but Cruden points out that LTO-1 media costs are low (about $0.19/GB) and that its 200GB of compressed capacity is enough to back up a small server on a single cartridge. Furthermore, LTO is reliable, says Cruden, "something you don't necessarily get from the other tape drive technologies."

Still, DAT-160 will always have something these newcomers never will: a huge installed base. "DAT customers are cost-sensitive and risk averse," says Roger. When they see a new generation of DAT, "they buy it."

--Alex Barrett

This was first published in April 2006

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