Tape drive makers are in something of a quandary. On the one hand, competitive pressures and existing customers push them to develop new tape formats of increasing size and speed, but on the other, there are clear signs that tape could be losing its edge as the backup medium of choice.
The concerns centre on manageability and reliability, especially as the point approaches where they will be asking us to trust 1TB of our precious data to a single cartridge. This concern has now driven Quantum, among others, to develop software as well as hardware in its battle to persuade us to stick with tape.
Alongside its latest 300GB per cartridge SDLT-600 drive, which leap-frogs LTO2 by providing 50% more capacity and 20% more speed, and also features an infrared port so it can talk directly to a handheld PC for diagnostics, Quantum introduced a suite of software called DLTsage.
The aim is to analyse tape usage and thereby anticipate and prevent problems, says George Kriegler, the senior vice president and general manager of Quantum's DLT group.
"Customers want to identify and avoid problems," he explains. "Are we using our drives and tapes evenly? People tend to forget that tape is a film, and if it gets too hot it can be damaged. So our DLTsage software can detect a bad cartridge for removal or track the age of a cartridge by the number of times it's been loaded."
Kriegler points out that, increasingly, it is the tape cartridges that are the potential weak link in the chain. "If you look at where people spend most of their money, it's on cartridges, and the prices of cartridges are falling," he says. The clear thing for the decision is cost per GB of tape, especially when you're a big site. It will be cents per GB - SDLT 600 is 20 cents per GB.
"So you have more competition on each format, and also there are more formats. We have Maxell and Fuji making tapes, plus Sony is doing the 160 and Imation is doing DLT-IV."
He adds that companies such as Quantum cannot afford to lose focus. "There's still a lot driven by technology, it gives competitive advantage and cost benefits for the user," he says. "You also need a feature set to differentiate you from your competitors.
"Drive generations are down to 16 to 18 months apart now, and I doubt they'll get much shorter. There is a point where, in order for manufacturers and OEMs to make money, you have to have a tape out there long enough - it needs time for return on investment.
"But what is 'enough capacity' for tape? With autoloaders there's different ways to set your application strategy, and that's what we're looking at now because we have the technology to do it."
Quantum has been through a lot of changes recently, including the release of the SDLT 600 and the integration of a former rival, Benchmark Technology, which it bought last year.
It now has two product families - its original full-height SuperDLT range, and the half-height VS drives which were developed by Benchmark as lower cost versions of the original DLT technology. The two overlap, with the VS drives approximately two generations behind the leading edge, but with a migration path to SDLT if needed.
According to Quantum's DLT marketing VP, Charlene Murphy, Benchmark's technology can take DLT into new areas. She particularly sees opportunities among DDS-DAT users, who face a choice of whether they go to DAT Generation 5 without knowing if there will ever be a Generation 6.
"So we've taken the VS80 and moved it down into the entry space on top of DDS," she says. We've sold 400,000 VS80 drives over three years, and our research says 50% of DAT users would like to move if the price was right."
The price breaks Quantum uses to divide up the drive market are $1000, $2000, $6000 and $30,000. Murphy says the 40GB per cartridge (80GB compressed) VS80 is therefore priced just under $1000, while the VS160, which is the intended replacement for the DLT 7000 and 8000, lists at under $2000.
She is clear about her target customers, too: "We looked at user buying decisions and found that 25% are format-loyalists - they stick with the technology they like and are fairly risk averse. About 19% are technology leaders who buy the latest and greatest, and that's where LTO has done well.
"About 22% are one-stop shoppers, for example they buy everything from Dell or IBM. The rest are value-shoppers who look for the best price, and that's where the VS160 comes in. Most [of those who plan to migrate] haven't made their decision yet, we see 35% to 40% deciding annually."