It's small, it holds tens of megabytes, data can be restored from it and it can be stored off site. It is the tape cartridge. That's what has made tape backup drives and autoloaders so important for small offices/home offices (SOHO) and small and medium enterprise (SME) customers. If you inadvertently delete files, or your disks crash, then you have backup copies. Disaster is averted. What disk manufacturers are beginning to say is that it's the backup that's important; tape is just a medium. If a spinning magnetic surface does the job better than a very long magnetized ribbon, then why not use that instead?

ADIC, Quantum and other library manufacturers are introducing disk caches into their libraries to cut the backup windows down from many hours to a few minutes. There is the additional benefit that if the backed up data is in the disk cache restoring lost files is much faster than restoring them from a backup set on tape. Vendors are begining to say that you should backup to disk and then, for the traditional security of off-site vaulting, backup to tape and have the tape catridges stored off-site.

But if portable and reliable disk can be used instead of tape then you get the advantages of off-site storage as well as much faster backup and restore cycles. Of course, where you need to backup hundreds of gigabytes, perhaps terabytes, then a portable disk doesn't have the capacity. But for tens of gigabytes or less the portable disk is beginning to be attractive. The cost of, say, five portable disks, versus the cost of a Dat72 tape drive and five tapes, is of the same order. Indeed the disks may have the advantage.

The reliability of such removable drives needs to be firmly established. If it is, and you are an entry level tape drive vendor, then it's possible that your business is going to be as viable as shipping polar ice to people who have refrigerators with ice trays.

Two more nails have been positioned to be knocked into what the disk manufacturers hope is tape's coffin.

Iomega has just announced plans to have an autoloader built by German manufacturer BDT, which will contain several of its 35GB RDD, rigid disk drives. The two companies foresee a range of autoloader products, from full height 5.25-inch single drive products with 280GB of native storage capacity, to multi-drive 4U configurations with over 4TB of native storage.

Iomega’s RDD technology is expected to debut in March 2004, in USB 2.0 and ATAPI configurations, branded as the Iomega REV drive, with autoloader products expected to arrive in the second half of the year. Iomega said that RDD-based products will deliver state-of-the-art backup for small and medium-sized businesses, and enterprise workgroups, with lower cost and better performance than traditional tape backup systems. Based on average data rates, a 20GB file that takes more than an hour using DDS tape will take only about 20 minutes with RDD technology. And because RDD drives are random-access storage devices, they will allow users to copy or restore individual files in seconds, many times faster than is possible with tape, according to Iomega.

“The tape backup market is ripe for a replacement technology that can lower costs and revolutionise performance,” said Werner Heid, president and CEO, Iomega Corporation. BDT currently supplies about 70 per cent of the low-end autoloader market through its original equipment manufacturer (OEM) relationships with leading computer companies, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Quantum and ADIC.

Breece Hill’s new Information Storage and Retrieval Architecture (iStoRA) is a disk-to-disk-to-removable storage platform for small and medium business (SMB) customers. It will include Avail Integrity software to provide SMBs with enterprise-level replication, backup, migration, and individual file recovery utilizing disk, and other removable media. The iStoRA product line combines the best features of both removable storage and NAS technology to deliver a complete, affordable and easy-to-use data protection and archiving solution for SMBs.

Backup vendors have to get to grips with backup to disk alone, like Dantz has, and produce software that does that. The signs are that it is beginning to happen. Veritas has recently announced a backup to disk capability.

Should we think the previously unthinkable, dump tape altogether for SOHO/SME backup purposes? Disk is looking to be faster, cheaper, just as portable and it is claimed just as reliable. It could be that we are witnessing the last days of entry-level tape backup hardware. The DDS tape replacement market over which Quantum, Certance, HP, Sony, Exabyte and Tandberg are so fiercely competing is, in this view, being fought on the wrong battleground. It's not a war about which tape format will win. It'a a war about which backup medium will win.

With enormous advantages in speed, with lower costs, similar portability and equivalent reliability then, to paraphrase one of President Clinton's advisors, "It could be disk, stupid."