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Sony soldiers on with AIT-5 tape drive

Sony Electronics has announced its fifth-generation AIT drive, AIT-5, which, like other "super drives," features more than 1TB of capacity on a compressed cartridge (400GB native) and approximately 62MB/sec of throughput, compressed. The drive is scheduled to be available in early 2007.

Compared to its LTO and DLT competition, AIT-5's main selling point is its size, says Michael Nixon, senior manager at Sony Electronics' Tape Streamer Products Division. Based on the 8mm format, an AIT-5 drive can fit nicely in a 3.5-inch drive bay, says Nixon, whereas most LTO and DLT drives require a full 5.25-inch slot. That's especially important for rack-mount servers, where real estate is at a premium, he adds.

And compared to similarly sized DDS or DAT72 cartridges, AIT-5 holds an order of magnitude more data: 1.04TB vs. a modest 72GB. With most servers shipping with several hundred gigabytes of internal storage, "the last thing you want is to be swapping tapes," says Nixon.

Sony claims AIT-5 has other competitive advantages vs. LTO and DLT because it uses helical scan rather than linear technology. AIT-5 handles lapses in incoming data more gracefully than LTO, according to Nixon. If there's a pause in data streaming on LTO, "[the drive] definitely needs to spool to the very end [of the media] because that's the trigger to reposition the head," he says.

More sophisticated drives may have the ability to reposition the head to resume recording, but that adds cost and complexity. AIT, on the other hand, doesn't need to reposition the tape to resume writes, which ultimately results in less shoe-shining of the tape.

But despite Sony's and others' best efforts at developing compelling tape products, they may be waging a futile battle. According to a recent report by Freeman Reports in Ojai, CA, the percentage of tape libraries shipping with LTO drives increased to 81% in 2005, up from 73% the year before. By 2010, Freeman Reports predicts LTO will ship in 86% of libraries.

When it comes to small footprint, high-density libraries, LTO's dominance may be even more pronounced--closer to 90%, says Robert Amatruda, research manager, tape and removable storage at IDC, Framingham, MA. AIT-5's density and small footprint "puts it in good stead" to compete on its technical merits, he says, but in the end, "it may not be about technology.

"It's certainly not easy to displace an incumbent," he notes. "The battle isn't lost, but this is clearly an area where they have to redouble their efforts."

--Alex Barrett (AB)

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