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Here comes LTO-5 tape technology, ready or not

Even with a slow economy and adoption of LTO-4 by no means complete, the LTO Consortium is gearing up to offer LTO-5, which is slated for release in early 2010.

If tape backup and recovery technology has failed to live up to repeated predictions of its imminent demise, one of the reasons must surely be the LTO Consortium. Over a period of about 10 years, the LTO Ultrium format, developed and supported by technology providers including Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co., IBM Corp. and Quantum Corp. (and their predecessors) has brought to market four generations of high-capacity tape storage products with a carefully laid out, six-generation roadmap for growth and scalability.

LTO-4, the current generation of tape, provides up to 1.6 TB of capacity per cartridge and transfer rates of up to 240 MBps (assuming 2:1 compression). The format has also been made to provide for write once, read many (WORM) functionality to help address regulatory compliance needs along with tape drive level-based encryption to strengthen security.

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Now, with a slow economy and adoption of LTO-4 by no means complete, the LTO Consortium is gearing up to offer LTO-5, probably early in 2010, with a capacity likely to be in the range of 3.2 TB and data transfer rates of up to 360 MBps (in both cases, assuming a 2:1 compression ratio).

Who needs LTO-5?

But is the market ready and does anyone really need that kind of capability? William R. Qualls, director of magnetic tape at Imation Corp., says yes. In his view, higher capacity gives organizations a chance to keep the same physical footprint while keeping up with the doubling of data that happens every two years, on average.

However, Robert Amatruda, an analyst at IDC, is more cautious. He said in the big picture, LTO is on a roll. "It has been tremendous," he said. However, he added, the tape market doesn't lend itself to quick transitions. "It isn't like the hard drive world where you are in and out of a technology generation in 18 months -- with tape, it is more like 36 or more months before the current generation fully matures," he said.

Indeed, he said, all of the LTO vendors are grappling with that fact and the reality that the current economy is adding "staying power" to existing LTO deployments.

While somewhat more optimistic, Robert Sims at Crossroads, a storage solutions vendor, acknowledges the challenges. He pointed out that LTO-2 came out on schedule and while there was an effort to get quick adoption, not everyone did, or at least not as quickly as the vendors had planned or wanted. That trend continued significantly in LTO-4. In fact, he noted, there are a lot of companies that have only recently moved to LTO-3.

"We have some customers who are thinking of skipping LTO-4 entirely, and others say LTO-2 is meeting all their needs and they aren't sure they will ever go," he said. And with tight capital expenditure budgets, "People aren't throwing this technology away -- I think the roadmaps showing continued performance gains and doubling of capacity aren't necessarily what the market wants," he added. On the other hand, LTO-4's new encryption capabilities, which LTO-5 is expected to continue, did help some companies to justify an upgrade.

Of course, for better or worse, LTO has maintained and is expected to continue to support orderly transitions rather than "big-bang" changes. For instance, LTO-4 format supports backwards-compatible read-and-write capability with LTO generation 3 cartridges and backward read capabilities with LTO generation 2 cartridges. That same kind of backward compatibility is expected to continue with LTO-5.

"It isn't like the hard drive world where you are in and out of a technology generation in 18 months -- with tape, it is more like 36 or more months before the current generation fully matures.
Robert Amatruda

Others in the vendor community are far more bullish, though. For instance, John Zammett, president of HorizonTek Inc., in Huntington NY, a storage and backup solutions provider offering said, "LTO-5 is a no brainer." In his view, although the media is likely to be more expensive, it is less expensive overall than even LTO-3 because the price-to-capacity ratio is more favorable. "So it is not a matter of trying to force a high-tech sales on people. On the low end, people may not need the throughput or capacity, but it makes sense because of the overall cost of media and in large environments it makes sense because it handles large amounts of data so well."

Bob Covey, vice president of marketing at Qualstar Corp., a tape system vendor, is equally bullish. "In the market I think there is always room for more capacity," he said. "Every time capacity goes up, the cost per gigabyte goes down. There are clearly customers who have such enormous requirements that capacity is a big factor. We have customers on LTO-3 that will upgrade straight to LTO-5, and a number of them have already expressed strong interest in it."

More organizations are using tape for archiving

Furthermore, Covey noted, LTO makes upgrades easy. "Every one of the previous [LTO] upgrades has been completely painless. Every library we have handled since LTO-1 has accepted the modification without any changes other than firmware."

Then, looking at the issue strategically, he said many organizations are paying more attention to archive functions than in the past. "When you talk about archiving, you are talking about the cost per gigabyte or terabyte -- tape is clearly at the forefront and when you get a 2:1 increase in capacity; customers will really welcome the change," he added.

So, is it really too soon for LTO-5? "That is a key question," admitted Amatruda. "I think the tape vendors could reap the install and maturity of early LTO generations for a bit longer but I think the tape vendors are also under the gun to continue to roll out higher capacity and remain cost effective. Tape is not dead and it's not even wounded, and LTO has been a terrific format so far," added Covey.

David G. Hill, analyst at the Mesabi Group LLC, said he expects LTO-5 will build upon the success of its predecessor LTO-4. "The LTO program has been a successful one, and, other than the impact due to the existing financial climate, I would expect that to continue," he said.

"Even though disk-to-disk backup options, including VTLs [virtual tape libraries], are likely to increase in popularity tape will remain as the last line of defense, added Hill.

About this author: Alan Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology, particularly data storage.

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