Who makes Sony AIT tape drives and media? Sony, only Sony. That means if an AIT customer buys a tape then Sony makes money. Not so with LTO or DLT or DDS. Drive-making and tape-making are spread across many companies. IBM might sell an LTO drive but Imation could pick up the media revenue.

This makes Sony’s approach to the tape market very much like HP's approach to ink-jet printers, but with less competition. Sony wants to sell as many drives as possible so that it can then sell more and more tapes. The drives are there to generate tape sales - just like HP sells cheap inkjets to generate ink cartridge revenues.

And also to generate upgrade business as storage needs rise. Like the Jesuits, Sony believes that if it captures its customers young, in the first flush of tape backups, then they are Sony’s for life as their storage needs grow. From AIT-1 to AIT-2 to AIT-3 and so on, with media sales for Sony all the way.

Sony has a DDS to DLT/LTO entry-level to mid-range tape line called AIT and a half-inch tape line called Super-AIT.

The greatest volume in the storage market is the DDS area, the 20 to 50GB or so tape cartridge area.

AIT has been successful. Drive sales have more than doubled in three years. But it is still only a fifth of the size of the DDS market, and just 14 percent of the low-end tape market overall, according to IDC October 2004 figures. But Sony, like Oliver Twist, wants more and is turbo-charging its AIT drives.

Mark Lufkin, Sony Europe’s general manager for such things, thinks that AIT is a victim of its own success. “HP did DAT-72 because AIT was becoming too successful.” He asserts that, “AIT is the number 1 replacement of DDS technology. The turbo idea is to take more share from DDS.”

That’s where Sony’s AIT-1 and AIT-2 tapes apply. DDS has built-in limits according to Sony. Its roadmap implies a move from 4mm to 8mm media and that will threaten backward compatibility. DAT 160 is not 4mm but 8mm technology. Sony’s technology, already 8mm, has a roadmap out to 200GB and beyond and greater reliability. No media changes there that threaten backward compatibility. Now Sony aims to undercut DDS cost as well.

Sony has introduced AIT E and AIT-1 Turbo products. AIT-1 offers 35GB native capacity and a 4MB/s transfer rate. It is in DDS-4 territory – 20GB capacity/3MB/s I/O rate.

AIT-E (E for economy we think) offers the same 20GB capacity and a much faster 6MB/sec I/O rate. It’s cheaper than DDS-4 too. Lufkin said bluntly, “We want unit volume at the low end, (It’s) a bit of a loss leader type product. It’s better than DDS at a lower price. The aim is to get volume and generate upgrade business.”

How has Sony done it? It's shortened the AIT-1 tape from 230m to just 80m and used AIT-2 recording technology. The denser data recording rate effectively increases the I/O rate. The shorter tape cuts the media cost. An N version of the tape doesn’t have the MIC flash memory for faster file location on the tape. That cuts the media price down even more.

Lufkin said, “The net result? AIT-E costs around 17 euros, which is down from the 40-50 euros that AIT-1 costs.”

AIT-1 Turbo
AIT-1 Turbo also offers a 6MB/s transfer rate and capacity of 40GB. This contrasts with AIT-1 with its 35GB and 4MB/s. It looks very much as if we could be seeing a gradual phasing over to a new generation of AIT products here. AIT-1 Turbo uses AIT-1 drives with AIT-2 recording technology to increase the signal rate and thus the I/O rate. AIT-E is the same sort of Turbo technology used to create a smaller but faster tape than AIT-1. AIT-1 Turbo is a shorter, slightly larger capacity, and faster tape than AIT-1.

There’s no fundamental reason why Sony can’t apply AIT-3 signalling technology to AIT-2 and so produce an AIT-2 Turbo. And then do the same with AIT-3 and AIT-4 signalling technology to produce an AIT-3 Turbo.

Sony thinks it can greatly increase its penetration. Lufkin said, “A tripling of the unit volume of AIT is wanted. The DDS market is five times bigger than AIT. So a doubling or tripling of unit volume is possible, in the next eighteen months. AIT is more reliable and has an upgrade path.”

Really? More reliable? Lufkin said, “There’s a big difference. With DDS you use the media five times and then throw it away; you lose data if you don’t. AIT is much better.”

The key to Sony’s plans is to sell more drives. Because then it sells more tapes and gets all the revenues from the tape sales. There is no Imation, TDK or Fujifilm to bleed off tape revenues. Sony’s AIT drives use Sony AIT tapes. It is a clean, proprietary and single occupancy universe.

Sony is certifying its AIT drives against HP, IBM, Dell and FSC servers so that its customer can buy AIT drives with confidence that they will work properly with these servers. Sony resellers can also install the Sony drives into these servers and deliver them pre-integrated.

In summary, Sony is positioning AIT-E against DDS-4, and saying that AIT-E is two and a half times faster, cheaper, has a higher capacity and is more reliable because of drive sealing. Lufkin said, “AIT-E is a real low-end product to compete with DDS-4 specifically. Same capacity as DDS-4 but cheaper. Also it has a cheaper media price.”

AIT-1 Turbo is positioned against DAT-72, against which it is cheaper, faster, holds more data and has a higher reliability.

[We'll continue this interview with Mark Lufkin in another feature looking at Super AIT drives, autoloaders and libraries.]