Published: 01 Aug 2009
Sun Microsystems Inc. tape libraries took top honors in both the midrange and enterprise categories in the latest Quality Awards survey.
When Sun Microsystems Inc. acquired Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek) back in June 2005, it raised the eyebrows of more than a few industry analysts. Some doubted that adding a tape library vendor to its arsenal would help Sun, which was struggling to stay viable in the storage market at the time. But the Sun/StorageTek combo has once again teamed up to snare top honors in Storage magazine's fourth annual Quality Awards for tape libraries with a resounding sweep of both the midrange and enterprise product categories.
This is the third time Sun has finished first in the enterprise grouping in our service and reliability survey, to go along with two wins among its midrange competition. With all of those wins under its belt, it's still the first time that Sun came out on top in both product groupings in the same survey. And it was only a slim 0.02-point loss to IBM in the enterprise field last year that kept Sun from winning the category in every tape library Quality Awards installment to date.
This edition of the Quality Awards survey for tape libraries had 694 valid responses, accounting for a total of 811 product ratings (see "About the Quality Awards," below).
|About the Quality Awards|
The Storage magazine Quality Awards are designed to identify and recognize products that have proven their quality and reliability in actual use. Results are derived from a survey of qualified Storage readers who assessed products in five main evaluation categories: sales-force competence, initial product quality, product features, 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 product on the market regardless of vendor name, reputation or size. Products are rated on a scale of 1.00 to 8.00, where 8.00 is the most favorable score.
Seventeen product lines were included in the midrange and enterprise library categories; 13 received enough responses to be included in the final results (see "Products in the survey," below).
|Products in the survey|
Midrange tape libraries
Enterprise tape libraries
*Did not receive enough responses to be included in final results.
Tape libraries highly rated
In our modern data centers, tape libraries loom like leftovers from the Industrial Revolution, with more moving parts that are likely to wear down, wear out and break. But judging from the results of various tape library surveys, these devices just seem to keep chugging along. "They have been running for 10 years," noted one survey respondent of his company's tape libraries. A number of respondents offered similar comments, and it's clear that library vendors deserve some kudos for refining their wares to achieve a level of reliability that rivals other storage devices.
But with the emergence of disk in the backup process, not all is happiness in tape library land. Disk has, in some cases, diminished tape's role, with some storage managers looking to eliminate tape entirely. "Tape sucks," commented two respondents, both of whom are moving toward disk-only backups. Another called tape "yesterday's technology" and indicated that he's "moving away from tape." Still another said unambiguously, "I hate tape -- we use external [hard disk] storage wherever possible."
But for most of our survey respondents, tape is still an integral part of their operations, and not an unwelcome part at all. "Regardless of what people say, tape is not dead," noted one such user, who added, "The cost to keep disk spinning that long is just too high."
The experience that most storage managers have with any piece of storage equipment starts with the sales process. For tape library buyers, this is an especially critical part of the process as the products they purchase will play a key role in data protection and are likely to become long-term fixtures in their shops. Sun came out on top in the sales-force competence category for midrange libraries with a score of 6.63 that easily surpassed second-place finisher IBM (6.37). Sun outpaced the field with the highest scores for five of the six statements in the sales-force category, with particularly high scores for the statements "My sales rep is knowledgeable about my industry" (6.82) and "The vendor's sales support team is knowledgeable" (6.76).
"They have a long history here, so they do know my environment," said Max Arnold, executive director for data center operations for the State of Tennessee's Office for Information Resources in Nashville. Arnold has three Sun libraries, including a large Sun StorageTek SL8500 Modular Library System. He said his sales rep is typically accompanied by a technical resource. "They come and whiteboard with us, and we go through the entire environment in maybe a half-day session to get everything designed right," he said.
Kurt Hazel, senior lead systems administrator at the Spartanburg, S.C.-based headquarters of Denny's Corp., had a similar experience during the sales process for the firm's IBM System Storage TS3310 Tape Library. "We explained our needs, and they met every one of them," Hazel said, adding that the IBM team was "very, very receptive."
Among enterprise entrants, Spectra Logic Corp. coasted to an easy win with an overall sales competence rating of 6.53, well ahead of runner-up Sun's 6.17. Spectra Logic's domination of this category was even more impressive than Sun's midrange win, with the highest scores for every statement. Spectra's highest statement score was a 6.83 for "My sales rep is easy to negotiate with."
Click here to view a PDF of the midrange tape libraries rankings.
Initial product quality
Having negotiated the sales process, the next litmus test for a tape library is initial product quality -- notably, how quickly it was installed and running, and the helpfulness of the professional services the vendor provided. For enterprise tape libraries, Spectra Logic repeated its sales-force competence win with a score of 6.62 over Sun's 6.47. IBM and Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. were third and fourth with ratings of 6.39 and 6.32, respectively. Spectra Logic once again dominated the category with high scores for five of the six statements, with Sun prevailing for the sixth ("I am satisfied with the level of professional services this product requires").
However, Sun turned the tables in the midrange library category with top scores for five statements (tying Sony for one of them); HP's 6.54 for "This product was easy to install" barely nudged Sun's score (6.50) to prevent the latter from sweeping this category. Sun also received one of only two 7.00 ratings in the entire survey for the statement "This product delivers good value for the money," which is something of a bellwether in the Quality Award surveys in helping to determine winning vendors.
Denny's Hazel is sold on the value of the company's IBM library. "It was half the cost of the previous solution, so we increased our productivity and reduced our costs, which is an amazing thing."
Among midrange library vendors, after Sun, the field was closely bunched. Sony was second with a 6.57, but the remaining six vendors were all within 0.30 points of Sony's score.
The rubber really hits the road when a tape library is moved into production and its feature set is put to the test. In the midrange group, there was little doubt that users felt that Sun's feature set was the best. Sun topped the other vendors for every statement in this category, with a total product features score of 6.72, enough for a convincing win over runner-up IBM (6.49). Sun's impressive romp through the features category was highlighted by a very high 6.95 for "Overall, this product's features meet my needs" -- a resounding endorsement of its products' capabilities.
Second-place IBM was a model of consistency in the midrange-class category, with very solid scores of 6.52 to 6.59 for six of the eight statements, as well as a very respectable 6.31 for interoperability and a 6.30 for user interface. "IBM is easy," commented one survey respondent, underscoring IBM's strong showing in the features category.
In the enterprise field, Sun and Spectra Logic continued their duel, with Spectra Logic ultimately winning the features category by the slimmest possible margin (6.70 to 6.69). Reflecting the closeness of the finish, the two vendors divvied up the category with each coming out on top for four statements. Spectra Logic's win was highlighted by the other 7.00 rating in our survey, which it earned for the statement "This product loads and ejects tape efficiently." Sun Microsystems came close to garnering another 7.00, but fell slightly short with a 6.92 for "This product's operational performance meets my needs."
The Sun library purchased by the State of Tennessee's Office for Information Resources is so big that they had to ensure that the doors of their new data center were large enough to accommodate it. But as big as it is, it can still grow. "The 8500 that we have today is the maximum in a single frame, but the 8500 works where you can stack them side by side and the robot can actually go from one frame to another," State of Tennessee's Arnold said. "So it's hugely scalable."
Click here to view a PDF of the enterprise tape libraries rankings.
Tape library reliability
As noted earlier, one might assume that tape libraries, with their many mechanical components, would fall prey to reliability issues. But over the course of four Quality Award surveys, we found the opposite to be true: tape library users tend to rate those products fairly highly for reliability concerns. In both the midrange and enterprise classes, all but one vendor pulled down scores over 6.00 for reliability, with Sun coming out on top in both the midrange and enterprise tape library groups.
Among midrange products, Sun impressed once again by taking top honors for six of the seven statements and rolling up a winning category score of 6.61, well ahead of IBM's second-place rating of 6.26. Sun again flirted with a 7.00 score by notching a 6.91 for "The product meets my service-level requirement," but the category's highest score was registered by Overland Storage Inc. with a 6.92 for "This product requires very few unplanned patches/updates."
Although most errors are detected by his backup software, Denny's Hazel still relies on IBM's user interface. "The Web interface has been helpful when a drive does go offline," he said. "It gives you a decent error code, and the error code is very simple to look up to see what the problem is."
Sun's win in the enterprise group, with a category score of 6.53, featured another near-sweep as it came in second to IBM on a single statement ("Vendor provides comprehensive upgrade guidance") while scoring highest on all of the others. IBM again achieved a solid second-place finish with a 6.38, while HP and Spectra Logic tied for third with identical 6.11 scores. "All our HP equipment has been trouble-free," remarked one respondent, while another had similar praise for Spectra Logic, saying they're "very satisfied with this unit and the previous Spectra Logic units we have grown out of."
Library tech support
Ultimately, a user's final judgment on a product or vendor may come down to the technical support the vendor provides when the gear hiccups or falters. But the vendors in the survey again proved their mettle and came through with solid scores for tech support; all eight vendors in the midrange group had ratings that topped 6.00, while among enterprise vendors four of the five had scores higher than 6.00.
Sun accomplished another double win by rising to the top in both the midrange and enterprise groups. Its 6.57 score among midrange vendors was followed by some very close scores: HP was second with a 6.30, followed by Dell (6.25), Overland Storage (6.23) and Tandberg Data (6.22). Again, there wasn't much question that Sun would win this category after topping the other vendors for seven of the eight statements with a very consistent range of scores from 6.30 ("This product is easy to service") to 6.67 ("Support issues rarely require escalation" and "Vendor's support personnel are knowledgeable").
In the enterprise library group, Sun's tech support ranked No. 1 but by a much smaller margin, 6.51 vs. IBM's 6.47. As it did in the midrange group, Sun notched its highest statement score (a 6.81) for "Vendor's support personnel are knowledgeable."
The State of Tennessee's Arnold rated Sun's support as "very good" and added, "I guess that's the main reason I've stayed with them, because I've had such good luck on response time on issues."
IBM's strong showing was the result of topping the group on three of the eight statements and rating particularly well for knowledgeable support personnel (6.66) and timely problem resolution (6.62). The battle for third place was won by Hewlett-Packard, which nosed out Spectra Logic by a score of 6.26 to 6.22.
Buy that tape library again?
Over the course of the nearly 20 Quality Awards surveys we've conducted, when we ask respondents if they would once again buy the product they're rating, the results sometimes contradict the other scores they volunteered. Although that may seem counterintuitive, it may simply be a case of sticking with a product that has had its intricacies and idiosyncrasies successfully deciphered. Overall, 85% of respondents said they'd buy their midrange library again; for enterprise libraries, 87% would be willing to take the plunge again.
This time, there were fewer surprises among individual vendors. Sun Microsystems backed up its midrange win with a solid 91% saying they'd buy their Sun product again. Hewlett-Packard users were nearly as enthusiastic, with 90% saying they'd buy their library again. Overland Storage was a close third with 88%, followed by IBM (87%).
In the enterprise group, Sun missed a "buy again" sweep by approximately 1 percentage point. HP topped the group with 89% saying they'd buy their enterprise library again, just beating out Sun and IBM, which both had 88%.
Fixtures in the data center
In the other surveys we've conducted, we've seen some evidence that tape libraries are playing a smaller roll in the backup process. For example, the size of libraries, as measured by the number of slots, has been steadily decreasing due in part to higher-capacity drives but also because of the growing use of disk. But we've also seen a steady reliance on tape technology, with more than 80% of users saying they still spin off some or all backup data to tape. So tape is likely to be around for a while, and tape library vendors are apparently doing a good job of providing reliable, effective products.
BIO: Rich Castagna (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editorial director of the Storage Media Group.