Overall, the storage industry ended 2003 on a strong note, according to a recently issued study from Gartner. Sales of storage systems jumped 18 percent sequentially in the fourth quarter, while the controller-based disk-drive market climbed 6 percent in 2003. According to IDC's Worldwide Disk Storage Systems Quarterly Tracker, factory revenues grew 8.4 percent year over year to $3.7 billion in fourth quarter 2003.

Although industry analysts have heralded the return to healthy if not spectacular storage growth, preliminary data gathered by Freeman Reports, a data storage industry analyst firm, indicates that certain sectors of the tape drive market are positively on fire. In fact, according to Bob Abraham, president of Freeman Reports, sales of Quantum's Super DLT (SDLT) tape drives jumped 36 percent year over year and overall growth in the super-tape-drive sector exceeded 35 percent.

Abraham divides the tape market into several segments according to capacity, speed, form factor, and application. The top-of-the-line category consists of mainframe tape drives. The other categories are Super drives that are used in midrange distributed systems and low-end enterprise system infrastructures, followed by midrange drives for smaller network applications, then the desktop and entry-level server segment.

According to Abraham's preliminary estimates, the market for tape drives for the mainframe arena remained strong, but the market has few competitors and is dominated by IBM's Enterprise Tape System 3590 drive. Sales of entry-level and desktop tape drives continue to plunge as enterprises move increasingly to back up at the network level and individual users migrate to optical media for backup. CD-RW drives are now standard operating equipment for most personal computers.

As a result, the super drive segment has emerged as the most dynamic and competitive tape drive sector. The market's dynamism has been sparked in part by the intense competition among three competing technologies--SDLT; Linear Tape-Open (LTO), a format promoted by a consortium led by IBM and HP; and Super AIT (SAIT), a super drive format from Sony. As Abraham tells it, LTO was the first super drive format to be introduced to market, and it grabbed significant market share at Quantum's expense. Quantum responded vigorously, introducing SDLT about 6 months after LTO began shipping. SAIT is the newest entry in the market.

Overall, according to Abraham, LTO has approximately twice the market share of SDLT, and sales of SAIT accelerated sharply in their first year, although SAIT drives still represent a small share of the overall market. Of the six major players in the super drive sector, Quantum remains the market leader.

The competition in the super drive sector is being shaped by three major trends. First, as Abraham noted, enterprises rarely replace their incumbent tape drive technology. "They would rather fight than switch," he said. "There is very little rip and replace." As companies need more tape capacity, they generally upgrade their existing technology. Consequently, the competition among the major vendors generally revolves around new applications.

Second, the role of tape is changing dramatically. As a backup and recovery medium, tape was a technology that many people hated but couldn't live without. Horror stories of failed backups and horrendously long recovery periods abounded.

But more and more companies are turning to disk-based media for backup and recovery. In those settings, tape is used primarily as an archiving technology, and the amount of data that needs to be archived is growing rapidly. Disk-based solutions are typically better suited to backup and, particularly, recovery operations, whereas tape is extremely cost effective for archiving. Moreover, an intermediate disk layer can provide a steadier stream of data to the tape drive, thus improving performance.

As tape finds a new role in the storage infrastructure, tape drives are becoming more intelligent. Quantum, for example, has layered intelligence into both its SDLT 600 drive and the tape cartridge, giving administrators better insight into the operation of the technology. Organizations have responded to improved manageability, according to Steve Berens, senior director of product marketing and strategy for Quantum's Storage Devices Business Unit.

In its new role, tape promises to continue to play a significant part in many network-based computer infrastructures. Unlike with many other types of technology, enterprises are loyal to their tape technology. But newer technologies have sparked lively competition, accelerating the development of performance and intelligence in product offerings.

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