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Tape systems evolve with higher performance, sophisticated robotics

Over the past year, tape systems have seen a good deal of innovation, including higher capacities, faster throughput, and new tape library robotics.

Tape systems have seen a good deal of innovation on a number of fronts recently. On one hand, we've seen changes to the tape medium itself as capacities continue to increase along with data rates. On the other hand, tape libraries are evolving with higher capacities, faster data transfer rates, and more sophisticated robotics. Also, much has been made about the Linear Tape File System (LTFS), although it is only just beginning to be integrated into actual products.

"What we are seeing is that companies are taking tape resources that might be allocated to a particular workgroup and aggregating them into bigger boxes, more slots, more drives," said Robert Amatruda, research director, data protection and recovery with IDC. "The trend we are seeing at the high end is fewer libraries with higher capacity."

Higher capacities and denser tape libraries

In May, IBM Corp. announced a 4 TB TS1140 tape drive and the TS3500 tape library, which the company claims can scale to 2.7 exabytes of compressed data (with a 3 to 1 compression ratio). The TS3500 has 225,000 slots for 900 PB of uncompressed data using TS1140 drives. The TS3500's Library Shuttle Connecter, which can connect up to 15 tape library frames, is designed to increase tape library efficiency.

"The Library Shuttle Connector allows you to connect one tape library string to another string," said Lee Jesionowski, chief architect for IBM tape automation. "When you combine multiple library strings, it allows you to create an archive that gets good efficient usage of the tape drives. So, if a hot spot occurs with cartridge access in one library, you can take advantage of drives in another library."

The process is managed via archiving software. "Our initial integration is with a very high-end archiving software called HPSS," he said. "We are working with other ISVs over time to add additional ISV exploitation." He said that IBM would work with the major backup software vendors to integrate this capability, but didn't specify a timeframe.

In January, Oracle Corp. introduced its first tape drive since acquiring Sun Microsystems, the StorageTek T10000C. It offers 5 TB of native uncompressed capacity for backup and archiving. The T10000C is compatible with StorageTek SL8500 and the StorageTek SL3000 tape libraries. One library can handle 100,000 cartridges and up to 640 tape drives. Oracle claims that the larger drives allow its libraries to scale to 1 exabyte of data with 2:1 compression.  

The Spectra Logic T-Finity tape library, which was released at the end of 2009, offers 30,000 drive slots and 120 drives. A T-Finity library complex, which takes up four data center rows with robots that pass between rows, can scale to 120,000 slots and 480 drives.

It is also worth mentioning that the Linear Tape-Open Program Technology Provider Companies recently announced the availability of licenses for the LTO Ultrium Generation 6 format. LTO's roadmap states that LTO-6 tapes will offer 3.2 TB of capacity.

And, though LTFS is only just beginning to be integrated with products, Amatruda said that it is an area to watch. "Below the big tape boxes, at the lower end of the tape market LTFS may spark some growth around tape," he said. "Vertical industries like media/broadcast, entertainment and scientific have used tape, generally proprietary formats, where now LFTS offers file system capability in an open format—that generally lends itself to a lot lower cost." He also said that LTFS is not necessarily going to grow the tape system market, but it is an innovation that will drive profit even as the tape market declines.

Sanjay Tripathi, director of data protection and retention for IBM storage, echoed that, saying that IBM has seen a strong demand for LFTS and noted that there have been more than 1,000 downloads of the open-source version of LTFS since it was released last year—and that a lot of the downloads are coming from the small- to medium-sized business (SMB) space. He said he expects that LFTS will create new use-cases for tape.

Tape systems offering faster speeds

As tape capacities continue to increase, so does throughput. Oracle's T10000C offers a maximum of 240 MBps uncompressed throughput and IBM's TS1140 tape drive offers 250 MBps uncompressed. LTO-5 tapes offer 140 MBps uncompressed throughput and the LTO roadmap says LTO-6 will offer 210 MBps.

But, it's not just about speeds and feeds, according to Amatruda. "At the high end, a lot of companies have architecture in place that allows data to be pooled," he said. "IBM TSM [Tivoli Storage Manager], for example, has disk pooling capability that allows data to be moved off to tape when system resources are lower."

50 TB tapes on the horizon

As disk is used more and more for backup and recovery, tape systems are increasingly being positioned as a long-term archive solution. Given tape's inherent traits, it is a logical fit. It can be truly offline, requiring no power; it is easily transportable offsite; and it offers huge capacities in a small package. In addition, even larger capacity tapes are just around the corner as major technology providers continue to invest heavily in tape.

For example, last May Hitachi Maxell Ltd. and the Tokyo Institute of Technology said they developed a new high-capacity tape media using ultra thin nano-structured magnetic film. The tape features an areal density of 45 Gb per square inch, and enables more than 50 TB of capacity per standard backup tape cartridge. The record density was achieved thanks to a new technique called the facing targets sputtering method. Magnetron sputtering methods, which are currently used to create LTO tape, cannot be used for fine composite films. In January of 2010, the IBM Research lab in Zurich partnered with FujiFilm to achieve an areal density that would enable 35 TB of capacity on one tape cartridge. IBM/FujiFilm's tape is created without using expensive metal sputtering or evaporation coating methods.

Tripathi said that the tape system market is moving in a couple different directions. "At the high end there has been a lot of interest in archiving," he said, but also pointed to the high-performance computing space as another area where tape continued to thrive. "Our larger clients are sending certain workloads directly to tape or taking flash copies and sending the snaps to physical tape, especially for workloads that are made up of a small number of very large files that need the streaming performance of tape, databases, data warehouses, that sort of thing."

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