New disk architecture accelerates Time Warner archive

Time Warner Cable Inc. had a slow and bloated archive, until it replaced its tape library with a disk system using MAID technology.

The IT department of Time Warner Cable Inc. recently found out that you can never underestimate how quickly an online archive will fill up, particularly if you're archiving to tape.

The cable arm of the media giant Time Warner Inc., which owns cable systems serving 10.9 million subscribers, had been archiving data from its various news stations to a tape library in New York City for several years. Recently, it became clear that tape was too slow to keep up with the company's rapidly growing online archive.

In a matter of months, employees at Time Warner's stations went from accessing the archive a few times a week to a few times a day. When a news editor would request a photo or piece of video, the time it took to pull the data from tape back to primary disk storage was slowing down production.

Initially, it was estimated that the online archive would take five years to fill up, but it only took two years -- and soon the ADIC tape library that the company was using reached capacity.

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Adding more tape was only a short-term solution. Chris Lemire, director of technology of the Time Warner Local News Groups, was put in charge of finding a long-term solution.

Lemire looked at tape libraries from StorageTek Corp. and IBM Corp., but realized another tape library wasn't going to solve the problem. He also looked at some network-attached storage (NAS) devices, but found himself more intrigued by a disk-based appliance called the Revolution 200T from startup Copan Systems, Longmont, Colo.

Lemire knew disk was getting cheaper, but was skeptical about its reliability. "I wanted to strike a balance between reliability and expense," he said. Lemire noted that the appeal of the Revolution 200T is that it uses lower cost Serial ATA (SATA) disk drives to emulate tape, with the ability to scale from 56 to 224 TB in a single cabinet with up to 896 drives. "And the price is right in line with a tape library," he added.

Copan also uses a unique technology called MAID (massive array of idle disks), which allows a disk system to consume less heat and power by only letting disks that are being used to spin. By using less energy, the disk drives will perform as well as Fibre Channel and last longer -- at least that's the theory.

Lemire was impressed, but wary of a startup with completely unproven technology. Copan offered to let him test the Revolution system for 120 days as part of their early adopter program. Lemire took advantage of the opportunity and put the Revolution 200T to work.

"It blew us away on all fronts -- the hardware, the software, the product development, the product management," said Lemire. He added that the Revolution 200T has throughput of 60 Mbps, compared to the 1 or 2 Mbps of tape. "It's as fast as any SCSI disk," he said.

Time Warner purchased the Revolution 200T for an early adopter price of $157,000. "If we were to buy a RAID disk array instead, the cheapest they go for is $8 per GB," said Lemire. "The Copan system is $3 per GB."

Lemire said that he keeps his eye on other "virtual tape libraries" from vendors such as Quantum Corp. and ADIC, but for now he's grateful to have the Revolution 200T in place and for "taking a big load off his back."

The new system has been operating at Time Warner's New York data center since early September and the big cost-savers so far have been a faster archive and the ability to expand easily. Lemire said the if Time Warner were to keep going at this rate with tape, they'd have to build another room. "With the Copan system, we just need to add disks."

Other companies selling virtual tape libraries include: FalconStor Software Inc., EMC Corp., ADIC, Alacritus Software Inc., Maxxan Systems Inc., Neartek Inc., Diligent Technologies Corp., Quantum Corp. and Sepaton Inc.

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