Last year, the midrange tape-drive arena began to look like a classic IT shootout, in which an open standard might force a proprietary technology out of the market. However, although products based on the new open-standards technology got off to a strong start, new products based on proprietary technology have renewed the conflict and are ready to meet the challenge.

The midrange for tape backup comprises tape cartridges with capacities between 40GB and 110GB and hard-drive prices between $2000 and $6000. According to commonly accepted industry views, the midrange market is the most robust sector of the tape backup arena—10 times larger than the enterprise-level tape market.

For a long time, the reigning midrange hard drive has been a format called DLT. DLT, and a newer iteration, Super DLTtape (SDLT), is a proprietary standard that Quantum licenses and controls. DLT has been so pervasive for so long that many industry veterans see it as the de facto standard (see second URL below).

At the end of 2000, a new competitor, Linear Tape-Open (LTO) jumped into the fray. LTO is an open standard that a consortium of heavyweight technology companies pioneered. IBM leads the consortium, which includes such storage-system stalwarts as Seagate Technology and Hewlett-Packard (HP). The idea behind the push for LTO was simple: Proprietary standards limited the choices companies had in selecting tape-drive products. Moreover, companies increasingly found that their tape-backup infrastructures were riddled with incompatible tape formats. An open standard could help standardize the technology.

LTO made a strong debut. In July 2001, Progressive Strategies, a market research and consulting organization, published a white paper based on benchmark tests that National Data Conversion Institute (NDCI) conducted. The research showed that LTO outperformed the existing SDLT technology in the speed of read-and-write operations by 35 percent to nearly 60 percent in the Windows NT, Solaris, UNIX, and Linux environments.

LTO technology made an immediate splash in the marketplace. According to a study by Freeman Reports, a veteran storage industry market research company, while unit growth for tape libraries generally grew only 3 percent in 2001 (revenue slumped 4 percent), sales of LTO drives jumped from 700 units in 2000 to 13,166 units in 2001. Robert Abraham, president of the Freeman Reports and author of the study, noted that LTO made gains in every market segment. He anticipated that LTO hard drive sales would climb 53 percent this year to 20,128 units. Abraham believes that by 2007, LTO will be neck and neck with SDLT, with sales of about 55,000 drives.

But Quantum isn't ready to concede industry leadership (or even half the market) to LTO quite yet. Last month, Quantum rolled out what the company describes as the second generation of SDLT technology, the SDLT 320 drive. In a press tour promoting the new release, Jim Jonez said, "This is the best product in all dimensions." Jonez is the director of drive product marketing, DLT product division at Quantum.

Jonez gave impressive statistics to support his claim. The SDLT can store up to 160GB per tape cartridge, 60 percent more than the largest LTO tapes. The drives perform 33 percent faster than LTO drives, according to company literature, and they offer the lowest cost per gigabyte, as much as 46 percent lower than LTO.

Moreover, Jonez said that the SDLT 320 demonstrates the benefits of a proprietary technology. The drive is backward-compatible with older SDLT drives. In fact, the SDLT 320 can use the same media as the SDLT 220 drive. In addition, Quantum has laid out a clear schedule for future products with increased capacity—a storage capacity of 1.2TB and throughput of 100 MBps.

Quantum isn't above throwing a little fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) into the mix too. Jonez suggested that although LTO is an open standard, the interoperability of tapes written by drives that one manufacturer builds with drives that another manufacturer builds hasn't been rigorously tested.

In any case, the shootout between SDLT and LTO should be good for the storage industry by driving innovation and forcing prices down. And the final battle in this war is yet to be fought.