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Users go for high-end VTL

Early adopters of Copan's MAID array say it costs less to keep than other VTLs that don't have its power and cooling conservation, and it puts more disk in a smaller footprint.

Virtual tape libraries (VTLs) have been something of a fad this year in the storage market- -- company after company has released their version of a disk array that fakes being tape. In the meantime, one of the first startups to ship a VTL, Copan Systems, continues to plod along, mostly under the radar -- but its users say its advanced features warrant more consideration.

Copan's Revolution 200T started shipping in April 2004, with an architecture it calls a massive array of idle disks (MAID). The system spins its SATA disks down when users are not trying to access them, meaning that up to 75% of the disks remain idle at a given time. Ultimately, this feature means that more disks can be put into a smaller footprint because idle disks cut down on heat and vibrations. The inactive disks also cut down on power consumption.

Furthermore, the Copan box also includes a feature it dubs "disk aerobics," which puts disk drives through their paces every so often to ensure they are not damaged by remaining inactive.

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It's something that impressed Craig D. Taylor, associate director of open systems for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, when he began looking for a new system to put between primary and secondary disk storage, and a tape library used for long-term archiving in his shop.

Taylor's organization, which provides records for future exchanges on the stock market, has seen its data pool go from about 4 terabyte (TB) little over two years ago to more than 230 TB. In that same time frame, 500 Unix /Linux servers have become more than 2,400. According to Taylor, they don't expect the data explosion to stop anytime soon -- so massive scalability was a priority when they began shopping around for a VTL.

"When we found the Copan option, we wrote it off because it's a new company and a new technology, but as we looked at it more, it started to make more sense," he said. "You can fit up to 224 TB in one frame. With most low-end arrays, if you're talking about scaling, you're talking about multiple instances of a given box, and that becomes a management issue."

The cost was also a factor: at $3.50 per gigabyte, the Revolution XT is comparable to top-end tape libraries and considerably lower than other VTL systems using ATA disk and RAID, which range from $6 per gigabyte to almost $20 per gigabyte.

"These are backups. I want to store the data as cheaply as I can," said Taylor. "It's a cheap platform and cheap in the data center -- I'm only using 25% of the power, cooling and space I would use with any standard disk array."

University of Texas replaces tape

The University of Texas Medical Branch was looking to replace tape with a more reliable product, according to software systems specialist Matt Johnson. "We needed speed and flexibility at a reasonable price," he said.

Like Taylor, Johnson liked Copan's low cost and high density, but was especially intrigued by its small footprint. "I can fit 60 TB of hard drive space in the Copan and still have more than half the shelves free for future purchases," he said. "The competitors would have required two additional racks to meet our 60 TB requirement. This would have tripled the power and cooling requirements, not to mention the premium server floor space."

According to analyst Arun Taneja of the Taneja Group, Copan's offering of a disk-based archiving platform at a price comparable to tape could be the ultimate gauntlet thrown in the disk vs. tape debate. "Now tell me why you would want tape," Taneja said. "That's their value proposition."

Copan also just announced its first major upgrade to the Revolution, the Revolution XT, which includes dual controllers for failover and better performance, long-distance data replication for disaster recovery, automatic monitoring of drives to detect failures and mirroring of data from failing or suspect drives to healthier spares.

Still, since its first product release, however, Copan has not gotten overwhelming traction, and now it has plenty of company in the VTL space. Startups, including Diligent Technologies Corp., MaXXan Systems Inc., and Sepaton Inc.; tape vendors, including Advanced Digital Information Corp., Quantum Corp., Overland Storage Inc. and Storage Technology Corp.; and disk vendors, including EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Network Appliance Inc. have all come out with VTL offerings.

Meanwhile, some experts question Copan's shelf life long term. "The question is what happens with disk drives two to three years down the road -- there may be improvements to disk so that they don't draw as much power and won't need all that hardware to manage it," said Greg Schultz, analyst with the Evaluator Group. "The drive technology may catch up."

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