Quantum's release of its DLT4 tape drive last month could signal an interesting resurgence of competition in tape backup for the small-to-midsized business (SMB) and department-oriented markets. The new drive, which has 320GB of compressed capacity (160GB native) and a 72GB per hour compressed transfer rate, is priced at under $1000--what Quantum officials say is the magic price point for this market--and the storage media costs only 12 cents per gigabyte. Capacity and price, says Mark O'Malley, Quantum's strategic marketing manager, are the key factors in this market.

Vendors, customers, and the media have largely overlooked the lower end of the tape market in the last few years. At the very low-end small office/home office (SOHO) sector, users are rapidly abandoning tape and replacing it with disk--often an external USB hard drive--for backup. In fact, according to Quantum officials, the entry-level tape market is shrinking at a precipitous pace, perhaps as much 40 percent a year. Last year, around 200,000 entry-level units were sold, down from 1 million just 2 years ago.

Tape's fall-off in the SMB sector has been less dramatic. According to IDC, more than 1.16 million drives geared to the SMB market were sold last year. These drives typically are either directly attached to a server or are used as secondary backup for a department within a larger organization. Customers are generally looking for basic backup and the ability to store data offsite. In many cases, the use of removable media is still the most cost-efficient alternative.

In these settings, says Quantum's O'Malley, data-transfer rates are less important than elsewhere. Companies often still have sufficient backup windows and are content to back up their data nightly.

In the SMB sector, the longtime leading tape format, DAT/Digital Data Storage (DDS), still controls an overwhelming 72 percent market share, according to IDC. DLT holds about a 15 percent share, and Sony's AIT format represents about 7 percent of the market. A few other formats, such as Exabyte's VXA, hold still smaller slices of the market.

However, Quantum's' O'Malley says that the DAT/DDS format has "run out of gas." Sales of drives based on the DDS4 format, which was introduced in the late 1990s and offers 40GB of compressed storage, peaked a couple of years ago with sales of around 700,000 units. DDS4's successor, DAT 72, which has 72GB of compressed capacity, debuted in 2003. Although DAT 72 sales are still growing, many analysts anticipate that sales of DAT 72 drives will peak at fewer than 500,000 units.

The most common criticism of DDS/DAT technology is that it simply doesn't offer enough capacity, even for the SMB and department-oriented market. DDS/DAT often requires the use of multiple tapes to back up even one large-capacity hard drive.

Other aspects of the market are changing as well. Over the years, a point of differentiation between DAT and its competitors, DLT and AIT, has been that DAT was associated with a consortium of vendors. DLT and AIT, on the other hand, were seen as more proprietary formats controlled by Quantum and Sony, respectively.

But the DAT consortium appears now to be in tatters, and HP remains the sole manufacturer of DAT/DDS media. Moreover, the next generation of DAT/DDS technology could require a shift from 4mm to 8mm tape, infringing on the backward compatibility with existing drives. In any case, the higher-capacity DAT/DDS drives aren't expected to be introduced for at least 2 months.

The new Quantum DLT4 drives comes bundled with software that makes performing backups easier as well as management features previously associated with Quantum's midrange drives. Also, for companies concerned about compliance, the drive supports write once, read many (WORM) capability.

The real issue, however, isn't just whether the new Quantum drive's technical merits will let it make inroads at the expense of the incumbent DAT/DDS format. That question will be best answered after the next generation of DAT technology is released. But renewed, vigorous competition could rekindle SMBs' interest in tape as an appropriate cost-effective backup solution, slowing the movement, at least to a degree, of companies switching from tape to disk-based backup.

Flash Follow-Up
I received a flurry of responses to my previous column ("Will Flash Memory Replace Hard Drives?"), in which I speculated that flash memory could eventually play an important role in PC storage. Several readers disagreed, saying that flash technically just can't compete with hard drives--because its capacity is too limited and its read/write capability is insufficient. In contrast, another reader commented about the benefits that could be derived from what he described as "a pseudo RAID" made up of flash cards. Flash might not yet be ready to play the role I suggested, but solid-state technology, over time, will play a significant role in reshaping computer storage and bears watching.