As we reported in Techworld at the end of 2003 - here - the Ultrium LTO tape format has been taking the mid-range backup market by storm thanks to its excellent combination of performance, capacity and price. Only on its second generation, LTO-2 delivers impressive native transfer rates of 30MB/sec and teams this up with a storage capacity of 200GB on a single cartridge. Naturally, this makes it an ideal candidate for autoloaders allowing most to provide the facilities to completely automate at least one week’s worth of backup without any operator intervention.

Although traditionally specialising in optical products, NEC made a tentative move into the tape storage market at the beginning of 2003 by delivering its LTO-1 based Compact Autoloader. This amalgamated a single tape drive and autoloader robotics and NEC now extends this modest range to include LTO-2. With ten cartridge slots up for grabs the LTO2 Compact Autoloader combines an impressive native capacity of 2TB and a native transfer rate only marginally slower than Quantum’s SDLT600. NEC has aimed this product primarily at small to medium businesses looking to take their first steps on the road for automated backup but also at larger businesses looking to implement unattended backup in their remote offices

Build quality is good with the unit sheathed in a very sturdy metal shell. The solid drop-down door at the front uses a key lock and an automatic mechanism will relock the door if it has not been opened within ten seconds of using the key. Below this is a small, backlit LCD status panel plus a simple menu and control button arrangement for manual control. From here, you can view the slot contents, move cartridges around different slots and lock or unlock the front door.

Clever internal design is responsible for the small footprint as only seven of the cartridge slots are accessible from the front. The other three are fixed inside at the rear alongside the drive while the changer mechanism moves in between. NEC advised us it opted for a seven slot removable magazine to allow a full week’s worth of backups to be kept together. The system as supplied for review also included the optional bar code reader but it’s worth noting that this reduces the number of available slots to nine as the tenth is used for swapping cartridges during inventories. The tape drive is mounted in a removable caddy which can be swapped out easily for maintenance or upgrades. NEC gets our thumbs up for the choice of LTO-2 drive as we’ve always found IBM to have a slight edge on performance over the HP variant while built quality is the best in the industry.

We connected the autoloader to a dedicated Adaptec Ultra160 SCSI controller in a dual Xeon 1.7Ghz running Windows Server 2003. General storage was handled by a Seagate Ultra320 hard disk on its own Adaptec controller whilst backup software came courtesy of Computer Associates BrightStor ARCserve r11. To test general backup, verification and restore performance we used an 8.5GB mixture of data to represent a typical departmental file server. No drivers for the tape unit or medium changer were provided and a check on NEC’s UK support web site showed no available downloads for these or any manuals and just a phone number to call. Consequently, to acquire the drivers we had to put in a call for technical support which is a waste of resources.

For backup the autoloader returned an average transfer rate of 1856MB/min whilst verification and full restoration tests reported 1340MB/min and 1278MB/min respectively. ARCserve had no problems working with the autoloader component with it displaying the nine available slots with their contents and bar code details. Scheduled backup jobs automatically take the next available tape although other than running inventories and taking the slots offline there is no manual control extended to the loader arm or bay door.

With an LTO-2 drive at the helm the Compact Autoloader is offering high levels of capacity and top performance at a reasonable price making it a fine choice for automated backup at the SME level. Design is also particularly good as putting the drive in a removable sled allows it to be upgraded as the next generations of the LTO format become available.

OUR VERDICT

Automating backup is the best way to ensure it is run properly and autoloaders are a great way of reducing the workload. The LTO-2 equipped Compact Autoloader looks a good value choice for smaller businesses although by offering only two autoloaders NEC is not showing any serious commitment to this product line