Exabyte has announced its new VXA-320 tape format. This holds twice as much data as VXA-2, transfers it twice as fast, yet the drives use the same media as the VXA-2 format.

Capacity is 160GB native, 320GB compressed, compared to VXA2's 80GB native, and transfer speed is 12MB/sec, compared to VXA-2's 6MB/sec. A VXA-320 PacketLoader will cost about $3,999, compared to a VXA-2 model costing $2,999.

Growing market
Exabyte EMEA's MD, Brian Stanley, says VXA is one of only two formats with growing market share, the other being LTO. Stanley cites IDC, 2005, market size data. In a flattish market, he says, that means other formats are losing share, meaning DLT/SDLT and AIT/S-AIT, also DDS/DAT-72.

The IDC figures show that entry-level tape drives are a $2 billion plus market and entry-level tape automation is a $1 billion plus market.

He says Exabyte's VXA is growing share because of its technology, its pricing and its channels.

Vastly better deformation resistance
The technology involves writing date in discrete packets, analogous to IP packets, in helical tracks running obliquely across the tape. Read dependability is radically better than linear track tapes, such as LTO, because all four read heads and all four write heads are used in reading the tape.

This means that a less than precisely aligned track can still be read. Exabyte EMEA technical support manager, Johan Willems, says VXA tracks have a positioning tolerance of plus/minus 270 microns, whereas LTO's tolerance is plus or minus 1.5 microns.

He says that tape, because it is stored openly, unlike hermetically-sealed disk rives, and because it is mechanically stressed when loaded, dismounted and streamed, inevitably deforms. This deformation alters track positioning. VXA drives can withstand 180 times more deformation than LTO drives.

Also LTO, and DLT/SDLT drives, have to have much more complex and costly read/write head positioning mechanisms built in, giving VXA drives a cost advantage.

No LTO commoditisation at entry-level
This means that VXA drives are better suited to the entry-level tape drive and automation markets than LTO drives because their price/capacity numbers are much better and tapes last much longer, meaning data is recoverable from the tapes for much longer.

Exabyte says LTO can't compete in the entry-level market. The main competition is the old DDS format and newer DAT 72. Willems says that HP DDS tapes have a recommended usage cycle of 100 mounts/dismounts. VXA's number is 500 mounts/dismounts, five times more.

DDS/DAT 72 dying?
Willems says that the average SME server is now backing up 100/120GB. DAT 72's capacity of 36GB native, 72GB compressed simply isn't sufficient. Users have to shuffle tapes or face insufficient autoloader capacity. A VXA 1-by-7 (1 drive, 7 slots) PacketLoader can be set up and left for a week before shuffling tapes.

Even if DAT 72 were to be superseded by DAT 160 with 72GB raw capacity it would still not match VXA3.

HP and Certance have committed to a DAT 72 roadmap extending out to 2010. They say DAT-72 increased its market share in Q1, 2005. The DAT-72 website states: 'DDS/DAT maintained its technology leadership in the high volume, low-end tape drive market with 71 percent unit share in Q1 2005. DDS/DAT outshipped the nearest technology competitor by a factor of almost 5:1."

Stanley thinks HP is just milking the DAT-72 format. Is development costs are all recovered so sell it as long as you can and then let it go.

The DAT 160 format, with 80GB native capacity and 5MB/sec transfer rate, is due 'approximately two years' after DAT 72. That means this year, 'by the end of 2005'. HP was asked if the DAT 160 schedule is on track for the end of the year. Chris Sopp, HP's European tape product marketing manager, said DAT 160 will arrive in the first three months of 2006. It will use a wider tape than DAT 72 but drives will be able to read DAT 72 tapes because there will be two load mechanisms. It will also have a USB connection as well as a parallel SCSI one.

He sais that it was possible the next DAT drive, the DAT 320, will have a serial-attached SCSI (SAS) connection when it arrives.

What about disk-to-disk backup?
Asked about D2D backup Stanley agreed that backup to disk was a growing presence in the SME market. Tape is still used for archive as it's removable and far cheaper than disk. This will continue for the foreseeable future.

Exabyte isn't planning to add disks to its PacketLoader and so provide a D2D2T product. He says Exabyte isn't in the solutions business. It doesn't want to enter its customers' space. It supplies components to them:-

- To its OEMS such as IBM and Fujitsu Siemens Computer and Apple, courtesy of VXA having a Firewire interface, who all buy into the VXA family of products,
- To its distributors and resellers, including direct market resellers such as PC World.

Exabyte will survive
When told that a gentleman from SpectraLogic had suggested that Exabyte wouldn't survive the coming tape automation supplier consolidation because it didn't have the volume needed, Stanley said: "That's odd. I'd have put them at the top of the list."

He said that business is growing steadily. Exabyte is shipping: "well over 1,000 VXA PacketLoaders a quarter."

Also he hinted that in October/November we will see a new LTO autoloader from Exabyte with radically better pricing than existing LTO autoloaders from other suppliers. Exabyte's current LTO3 autoloader in the 1 drive/7 slot area ships at around $8,300.

Its LTO2 autoloader ships at around $6,000. He said: "The new Exabyte LTO products will do to the LTO sector what VXA2 did to its sector 18 months ago." The hint is that we might see a street price of $4,000K to $4,500.