The ever-increasing volume of stored data presents big opportunities for the tape industry and is driving tape library developers to build new boxes that are not only bigger and faster, but more useful and more interesting - unlikely though the latter may seem.

A key innovation for many users will be the ability to set up library partitions, so that a single large library can simulate several smaller ones, says Jonathan Otis, senior VP of technology at ADIC.

"The latest libraries all have partitioning embedded, for example companies need different protection schemes for different applications," he says.

Another reason for partitioning is consolidation, notes Spectra Logic's EMEA sales director Anthony Yeates. "We can replace five dumb libraries with one intelligent one," he says, adding that not only can SDLT, LTO and AIT tape drives be mixed within a single library, it can also connect to Fibre Channel and Gigabit Ethernet at the same time.

As more and more organisations start to worry about data retention, regulatory compliance and the quality of their archives, not only do they need higher storage capacities but they must be trustworthy too, says Jonathan Otis.

"We're seeing a new crop of libraries, with lower cost per cartridge and more cartridges per square foot, and we're making libraries by themselves get more reliable," he adds.

"Serviceability is the issue everyone has today," agrees Jason Iehl, product manager for enterprise automation at Quantum's storage solutions group. Quantum recently launched Mako, its latest range of enterprise-class tape libraries, and Iehl says that it is no longer enough to double the speed and capacity of each generation.

Instead, manufacturers need to take lessons from the consumer electronics industry in areas such as reducing support and sales costs, improving ergonomics and, of course, finding out what customers really need.

"The biggest thing has been first-time fix, so we added diagnostics to tell us and the end user what the problem is. So the box must stay up long enough to get that information out," Iehl says.

It also means enabling the service engineer to fix a fault with a single visit, or even better, without having to visit at all. Libraries are therefore being designed for full accessibility from the front, while if a tape drive goes bad, you just shut it down and carrying on operating with the other drives.

"We also wanted to fight built-in obsolescence and aim for 50 percent cost reduction," Iehl says, adding that Mako includes as standard features that were optional in previous high-end libraries. This comes from feedback which showed that most customers bought certain options anyway, such as redundant power supplies.

Keeping them optional would have reduced the entry level price but options are a nuisance to administer, so Quantum made them standard. It aims to recoup the cost via the savings it will make from having a simpler order book, with less line items to manufacture and stock.

Another important issue in both backup and archiving applications is the ability to export tapes, typically for off-site storage. Jason Iehl says that users running large libraries typically need to export 30 to 40 tape cartridges a day, adding that Mako therefore includes a special port for this.

Other companies have come up with different strategies, according to Anthony Yeates. For example, he says that the new Spectra T950 library makes the task easier by moving and storing tapes in packs of ten, instead of individually.

One last trend might be a little more unexpected: good looks. Lead by StorageTek and others, tape library manufacturers are moving away from utilitarian looks and acknowledging that, even though we might deny it, we all buy stuff because it looks good.

"The datacentre is looking for something prettier now," says Jason Iehl. "We did research on 20 key points and people said they don't buy on looks - but they do."

He says Quantum fitted "pretty blue lights" inside the Mako box and a coloured door on the front for two reasons: firstly because people like to see what is going on, and secondly to give Quantum's resellers something to use as a differentiator. Quantum will even change the door and light colours for them, if they want.

Whether any of this will stop your management from yawning at the topic of archiving is debatable, but at least it will keep them amused if ever they drop by the datacentre.