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Sony's Super AIT - a fall from grace

Reorg slices through tape format's future

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Comment Sony is reeling, with 16,000 job losses and restructuring looming for its sprawling electronics division. Super AIT tape comes out of that sprawl, and its time may be drawing to a close, squeezed out by LTO much as AIT was squeezed out by DAT.

Back in 2004 the first generation Super AIT (SAIT) tape, the half-inch format big brother of AIT, offered 500GB raw capacity and a 30MB/sec transfer speed with its helical format. The other main open systems tape formats then were Quantum's DLTS and the LTO consortium's LTO-3, both of which store data in parallel tracks running the length of the tape ribbon. SAIT and AIT store data helically, in parallel tracks running diagonally across the ribbon.

Such tape could store more data in the same physical tape space, transfer that data faster, and do so more reliably than the other formats. There was a 4-generation roadmap for SAIT with a likely 24 - 30 months between generations, capacities roughly doubling with each generation.

Sony focussed on the broadcast market where videos would be stored in tape libraries such as its PetaSite product. DLTS and LTO were targeted at the general IT backup market. Broadcast company IT departments gradually looked outwards from the relatively narrow broadcast IT field, and realised that archiving videos on tape was not that different from archiving backup files on tape. They didn't need special kit to do this.

In the general IT market, LTO, seen as more open because of its three competing suppliers (Certance, HP and IBM) than Quantum's DLTS, had become more and more popular and ultimately became the dominant format. Quantum bought Certance and joined the LTO consortium, conceding that its DLT technology was on the way out.

The overall tape market is shrinking under the fire of disk-to-disk backup, virtual tape libraries and de-duplication. This encouraged format consolidation as weaker formats, like Exabyte's VXA, to give up the ghost. In the low-end tape market the DAT format became the consolidation focus, leaving Sony's AIT out in the cold. HP pushed its DAT-320 format as the next generation DAT tape. Sony saw what was happening and joined in with HP to develop this, and AIT's roadmap came to its effective end. No actual end of AIT product life has been announced yet, though.

Although SAIT holds more data than equivalent LTO generations - LTO-3 in 2004 held 400GB raw with SAIT1 then holding 500GB - the media is up to twice as expensive and the drives are proprietary to Sony. Also, LTO's inferior reliability could be compensated for by having more tape cartridges, it still being less expensive than SAIT.

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