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Quality Awards III: IBM and Sun shine among tape libraries

Despite their mechanical components, the reliability of tape libraries ranks high among respondents to our Diogenes Labs-Storage magazine Quality Awards. This year, IBM takes top honors in the enterprise category, while Sun reigns supreme among midrange products.

Despite their mechanical components, the reliability of tape libraries ranks high among Quality Awards survey respondents.

This year's installment of the Diogenes Labs-Storage magazine Quality Awards for tape libraries revealed a community of largely satisfied users. Last year, no vendor received close to a 6.0 rating from Storage readers; this year's tape libraries survey netted vendors a slew of 6.0-plus scores. On our 1.0-8.0 scoring scale where an 8.0 indicates total satisfaction, a 6.0 is a very good score. Even the lowest overall score in our survey (a 5.93) represents a very solid showing (see "About the Quality Awards," and "Inside this survey," below).

While it's tempting to say there were no losers in our survey, some vendors did better than others. This year, IBM Corp. took top honors in the enterprise category with a 6.29, narrowly edging out Sun Microsystems Inc. (6.27). This was IBM's first win in the enterprise tape library category after placing third the previous two years. In the midrange tape category, the same two vendors lead the pack, but in reverse order: Sun (6.30) and IBM (6.15).

The dynamics of the tape library market contrast significantly with other storage product categories. For example, disk arrays are dynamic and driven by innovation, but tape libraries are fairly stable, a healthy but mature market segment. One consequence of this maturity is consolidation. Since our first survey, ADIC, Exabyte and StorageTek have been acquired. In our first survey, 16 company product lines qualified as finalists in the enterprise and midrange product categories. This number dropped to 12 last year and was just nine this year. Some of this may be explained by the vagaries of survey responses. For example, Spectra Logic Corp. and Qualstar Corp. failed to garner enough responses to be finalists this year (see "Products included in the survey," below).

We attribute this to survey response self-selection, rather than business climate, as both vendors seem to be faring well and increasing revenue.

At a time when seemingly every politician is claiming to be the candidate of change and the comeback kid, in our survey Dell Inc. registered a very impressive comeback over previous years. Having finished in last place (seventh) in the previous survey among midrange tape products, its score soared from 4.98 to 6.12 in the current survey. This improvement was enough to vault the company into third place, only .03 points behind IBM among midrange libraries. Dell's improvement was confirmed by the willingness of users to repurchase its tape products, with responses rising from 63.3% last year to a more respectable 73.5% this year.

For most of the tape library vendors, their scores in our five ratings categories bounced around much more than usual. Although IBM and Sun obviously did well, each was rated both first and last within different categories. No vendor was able to run the table, and no vendor consistently polled last.

About the Quality Awards: The Diogenes Labs–Storage magazine Quality Awards III for tape libraries is the third installment in the annual series of survey-based service and reliability awards. The Quality Awards are designed to 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 that assesses 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. Indeed, our objective is to identify the most reliable products on the market regardless of vendor name, reputation or size.

Inside this survey: Among the finalists, the response rate was surprisingly even across the vendor product groups. The smallest response group was Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. StorageWorks MSL Series (midrange) with 27 respondents, while Sun Microsystems Inc.'s enterprise products had the highest response rate (86). These sample sizes give greater confidence to the results for each product. The 426 valid responses give our survey a +/- 6% margin of error with a 95% confidence factor. Ninety-three percent of respondents had just one or two tape library suppliers, further indicating that users have settled on a particular vendor for their needs.

Whereas many Quality Awards surveys have financial services as the largest representation, in this survey the largest constituency was healthcare/pharmaceuticals. This group was followed by education, government/nonprofit and then financial services. Our respondent group was skewed toward small- to medium-sized enterprises, with 86% of respondents from enterprises with less than $1 billion in revenue. IBM Corp. was the "heavy lifter" of the group, with 18% of its enterprise customers having a weekly backup volume exceeding 140TB. Sun wasn't far behind, however, with 15% of its large-scale customers backing up more than 140TB weekly.

Products included in the survey: The following vendors and products were included in the Diogenes Labs-Storage magazine Quality Awards survey for tape libraries.

    Enterprise class: Hewlett-Packard Co. StorageWorks ESL/EML Series*, IBM Corp. TotalStorage 349X/System Storage 359X or TotalStorage 3494/System Storage TS3500, Qualstar Corp. TLS Series or XLS enterprise library system*, Quantum Corp. Scalar i2000/10K or PX510/PX720, Spectra Logic Corp. Spectra 64K/T120/T950*, Sun Microsystems Inc. StorageTek SL500/SL8500/L700e/L1400M

    Midrange class: Dell Inc. PowerVault 136T/132T/ML6000 Series/TL4000/TL2000, Hewlett-Packard StorageWorks MSL Series, IBM TotalStorage 358X or System Storage TS3100/TS3200/TS3310/TS3400, Overland Storage Inc. NEO series or ARCvault 24, Qualstar RLS Series*, Quantum M Series/PX502/PX506 or Scalar 24/50/100/i500, Sony (all models)*, Spectra Logic 10K/20K/T24/T50*, Sun StorEdge L25/L100/L180 or Sun StorageTek SL48/C4 Tape Library, Tandberg Data StorageLibrary T40/T128 or Magnum 224 LTO Library/448 LTO Library*

    * Insufficient number of responses to be included in the final results.

Click here for evaluation charts on
Enterprise Tape Libraries (PDF).

Sales-force competence
In the first of our five ratings categories, we asked respondents about their experiences with their vendors' respective sales forces. IBM topped the group of enterprise finalists with an average score of 6.46. "I told them my needs--I needed two drives and this many slots and this is what they proposed," says Edward Meyer, network administrator at Columbus-based power company AMP-Ohio, when describing his work with IBM's sales force. "I'm extremely happy with it." Jimmy Touchstone, senior systems engineer at Mississippi Baptist Health Systems in Jackson, echoes Meyer's view: "The IBM people were very professional."

Interestingly, the results for the enterprise finalists tracked evenly on almost every statement in this category. Each vendor had its highest rating for "My vendor's sales support team is knowledgeable," and each had its lowest rating for the statement "My vendor's sales rep keeps my interests foremost."

Among midrange tape libraries, Sun topped the group with a 6.13 rating. The scores in this category for midrange products yielded the lowest ratings in our survey. It should be noted, however, that these scores were still very good. IBM also fared well in midrange libraries, coming in second with a 6.09. While Sun had its highest rating for its sales support team (6.44), IBM's midrange sales team had its best score for the statement "My sales rep is knowledgeable about my industry" (6.19). Matching its overall third-place finish, Dell came in third in the sales-force competence category. However, it was the only vendor to be most highly rated for the statement "My sales rep is easy to negotiate with" (6.26). Dell's second highest score was for "The vendor's sales support team is knowledgeable." The combination of a knowledgeable and compliant sales team would seem to bode well for customers considering Dell.

Still, there does seem to be a trend of users taking sales matters into their own hands and making more creative use of the services of vendors' reps. "We do all the homework in advance, and we leverage the pre-sales and the sales folks to help us with generating quotes and bringing out the things that we don't already know about," says Jack Kinsey, AVP, network systems manager at LandAmerica, a real estate services firm in Richmond, VA.

Product features
In the product features category, Sun was a study in contrasts. It finished first in the enterprise group with a 6.52, but dropped to last among midrange contenders (5.95). Kinsey is generally pleased with the feature sets of his company's Sun StorageTek L700e and two Sun StorEdge L180s. "The features are appropriate for the platform," he says, although he sees some room for improvement. "It would be nice if it was a little bit easier to ingest the tapes."

Similarly, IBM fell to the bottom of the enterprise group in this category, despite being No. 1 overall. IBM users downgraded the product's user interface with a 5.06, but indicated that overall the feature sets of the IBM libraries met their needs (6.45). "That thing is a jewel," says Mississippi Baptist Health Systems' Touchstone of his IBM System Storage TS3500.

Sun users also rated the product's user interface the lowest in the category (5.84) among midrange systems, but are apparently very pleased with its scalability (7.04). Quantum Corp., which placed second in this category, had the highest rated user interface in the group (6.25). Quantum products also received their highest marks for scalability, but its 6.73 fell a bit short of Sun's 7-plus score. When their NEO tape libraries arrived from Overland Storage Inc., Matt Morris said his operations staff got up to speed with them almost immediately.

"They didn't have any issue with it; they knew what to do right away," says Morris, network team lead at Wolverine World Wide Inc., a Rockford, MI-based footwear manufacturer. "I'm pretty impressed."

Although Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. tied for last overall among midrange products, it leapt to the top in the features category (6.24). Apparently, the aggregate features of HP products are what users like, as they awarded the company a 6.58 for the statement "Overall, this product's features meet my needs."

Bill Davis, director of information technology at Advanced Image Direct in Fullerton, CA, backs up about 1TB every night with his HP tape library. "The library has just continued to perform at top speed regardless of software changes," he says.

Sun's midrange score was dragged down by customers' marks for its user interface (5.29), which offset a very solid score for overall features (6.42). Quantum, which placed second in this category, received its highest rating for "This product is interoperable with other vendors' products" (6.73). Perhaps, not surprisingly, its lowest rating was for user interface (5.54).

Click here for evaluation charts on
Midrange Tape Libraries (PDF).

Initial product quality
In our initial product quality category, Sun topped the list of enterprise products with a 6.45, followed by Quantum (6.23) and IBM (6.17). Part of the reason for Sun's success in this category is its installation process. "They require that everything is certified," says Emilio Greatti, senior storage, midrange project manager at MPS Group Inc., a business services firm in Jacksonville, FL. "They really do try to make sure that the product is going to work as advertised."

Unlike the product features section, Sun was able to duplicate its winning way among midrange products with a score of 6.48, while Dell jumped to second with a 6.38. Sun had its highest enterprise and midrange category ratings for the statements "I am satisfied with the level of professional service required by this product" and "This product is easy to use." Dell also scored its high mark in this category for the required level of professional services. "It was deployed initially by fairly unfamiliar staff and it ran fine," says LandAmerica's Kinsey of his firm's Dell library, which has since been redeployed with similar results.

The initial product quality section of our survey asks users to respond to the statement "This product delivers good value for the money." This year, the "value king" was Dell with a 6.45 for all products, edging out Sun's 6.44 for enterprise systems and Quantum's 6.33 for midrange systems. Responses to this statement seem to be a bellwether, as IBM didn't do well in this section and scored a 6.22 (enterprise) and 6.06 (midrange) for the value statement.

Product reliability
If reliability is another of your core concerns, Sun products apparently can't be beat. The company took top position in both the enterprise (6.26) and midrange (6.30) classes in this category. IBM took second among enterprise products (5.98), while Dell took second among midrange systems (6.10).

When respondents were asked to rate the products for "This product meets my service-level requirements," Sun's enterprise products easily topped the field with a 7.0. Despite the excellent scores, 7.0 and higher ratings were rare in this survey. In a related bellwether issue, we pose the statement "This product requires very few unplanned patches." Almost invariably, this statement correlates very closely to the order of finish. This year, Sun's midrange bested all systems with a 7.08 rating. Sun's enterprise systems were also rated highest in this regard (6.57), but were followed very closely by IBM (6.53).

In both classes, reliability scores were generally high, perhaps something of a surprise for such mechanical devices. HP finished fourth in the midrange field, but with a solid 5.84 reliability rating.

"We've had that HP library since 2004--same drives and it's never been down once," says Advanced Image Direct's Davis. "I've been extremely happy with it."

Technical support
Rarely have we found technical support to be a differentiator in the Quality Awards surveys. This year, however, it was IBM's strong showing in technical support that put it into the winner's circle for enterprise products. Its 6.71 score was the highest of any product in any category and easily outdistanced Quantum's second-place enterprise rating of 6.23. Although Sun's 6.09 score certainly isn't trifling, the difference was enough to affect the overall outcome. For the statement "Vendor provides service as contractually specified," IBM users rewarded the company's service with a 7.10, the highest rating in our survey. Sun's ratings for service were solid, though not as spectacular as IBM's. Sun's score was dragged down by responses to the statement "Vendor's third-party partners are knowledgeable" (5.27).

Of course, establishing a good and ongoing working relationship with the customer is key to any technical support program.

"The same technical resource engineer who was with us in the StorageTek days is with us now with Sun," says LandAmerica's Kinsey. Meyer at AMP-Ohio reports similar experiences with his IBM System Storage TS3310: "If I need support, I know how to get to it; I know who to call," he says. Ken Sheffield, a project manager who works with MPS Group's Greatti, calls IBM's support engineers "the best of the best."

Sun had the highest rating for midrange products (6.62), followed by IBM (6.55) and Dell (6.08). IBM's midrange score for "The vendor provides service as contractually specified," nearly matched its enterprise score with a 7.08. Sun's best score in this category was a 7.07 for "Vendor's support personnel are knowledgeable." The lowest score for nearly every vendor was for "Vendor provides adequate training."

Buy again?
IBM was able to top the field in one final element of the survey. We ask respondents to tell us if, using hindsight, they would make the same purchase decision again. IBM had the highest positive response in both the enterprise (84.3%) and midrange (82.1%) categories. Quantum finished second to IBM in the enterprise category with an 83.9%, but tumbled to next to last among midrange tape libraries with a 70.3%. We were very surprised to see Sun score only a 68.6% positive response in this area for its enterprise products. We noticed that Sun scored very well in product-related areas (product features, initial product quality, product reliability) and less so in people-related areas (sales-force competence, technical support). This was just the reverse of IBM. Perhaps in mature markets, where product differentiation is less dynamic, it's the people that make the difference.

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