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Tape backup could be binned soon

Imation gets into bed with BDT

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Backing up to tape in an autoloader or small library could be heading for the graveyard if an Imation deal with BDT comes good.

BDT is a white-box manufacturer of tape autoloaders and libraries, devices with up to four tape drives and 96 slots for cartridges. They are used in small and medium businesses (SMBs) to back up data for several days at a time and then store the cartridges offsite in the autoloader case, or keep them in a library for faster restore from the bank of up to 96 tapes.

One of its most popular lines is an 8-slot autoloader for DLT and LTO tapes. BDT's past and present OEM customers include Dell, HP, IBM, Iomega, Quantum Corporation, Sun Microsystems, Tandberg Data, and Xerox.

Imation makes tape media but knows that the tape business is in a long-term decline because reading and writing is slow, compared to disk, and the costs of long-term storage on disk are going down due to increased hard drive capacity and deduplication. Tape is still the long term low-cost storage king for bulk data, petabytes of the stuff, but increasingly disk is the preferred choice for smaller amounts of data.

Imation has a manufacturing deal with ProStor, inventor of the RDX removable disk drive technology, to make the 2.5-inch drive cartridges, maxing out at 1TB, and docks into which the drive cartridges are loaded. Recently both Quantum and Toshiba agreed to supply such systems, sourced either from Imation or the other drive and dock manufacturer, Tandberg Data.

Imation has an agreement with ProStor that runs until 2020 and invested $5m in the company in March, an earnest of its intent to become more deeply involved.

BDT AG is the third licensed manufacture of RDX products, signing with ProStor in April, and Imation has just signed a deal with BDT to "market and commercialise new multi-cartridge RDX devices that combine the ease of automation with the benefits of RDX removable hard disk drive backup systems."

The big difference between a tape automation device and an RDX one is that you don't need a robot mechanism to move cartridges to drives, as each RDX cartridge contains a drive, and each slot will be, we expect, a dock. This means that the device controller switches I/O to and from loaded docks (slots) instead of moving cartridges to drives, making its response faster.

Although BDT has had an RDX licence since April, no product has emerged. The Imation deal suggests things are moving, with Imation possibly supplying the drives and docks, which BDT will assemble into the devices.

How will BDT's device software present the drives?

They could be presented as virtual tape cartridges with a one-for-one relationship. The whole device could be presented as a virtual tape library (VTL), with the twist that you could remove cartridges for off-site storage - something not possible with existing VTLs using fixed disk drives. The device could have a NAS interface, as many VTLS do, and be a pure disk-based data protection product. The device software is the key to this. One way to increase its cost-effectiveness would be to include deduplication, as Tandberg Data does with its Accugard products.

Imation SVP and chief technology officer Subodh Kulkarni talked of an RDX library, saying: "Our partnership with BDT will extend the highly popular RDX platform into affordable, high-quality automated solutions … by bringing the benefits of library automation to RDX, we can offer users even more efficiency and capacity in a very cost-effective solution.”

We might envisage something like a range of devices with, say, 12, 24, 48, and 96-dock capacities, a VTL interface so that existing backup software products can be used, and a deduplication option. There might even be replication to a remote device. The LTO tape format could be supported and, if BDT and Imation are adventurous, the DAT format as well at the low end. That format has a good penetration in the SMB market and HP supplies a 10-slot, 1-drive DAT autoloader that could be ripe for plucking.

The earliest arrival date for BDT RDX library product is probably the first half of next year. We would expect existing BDT and RDX OEMs to take the product and so put another brick into the wall confining the tape business into a steadily shrinking sector of the market. ®

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