Sony's Super AIT - a fall from grace
Reorg slices through tape format's future
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.
Betamax and VHS wars all over again
Nick Smith, a Sony marketing manager, said it was like Betamax and VHS all over again, and the best product lost - again. SAIT2 was launched in 2005 with 800GB capacity but SAIT3, the next step in the SAIT road, never came. LTO-4 came along with its matching 800GB in 2007 and the LTO roadmap had generations 5 and 6 pegged in, whereas the SAIT roadmap had effectively halted. That was the beginning of the end.
Smith says Sony privately conceded the point and has begun supporting LTO in its customer base: "As of the last 18 months we've supported both LTO and SAIT in our archive products and people can migrate from SAIT to LTO."
The effective ending of the SAIT roadmap and the positioning of SAIT-2 as the last SAIT generation doesn't mean Sony is not supporting SAIT. Customers are still being supported and can expect to have that support continue. But they should realise that SAIT has entered the start of its end-of-life phase and plan for a future in which higher capacity tape cartridges will only come from LTO-5.
Nick Smith said more about continuing SAIT2 support: "Our policy is that we will support SAIT2 drives and systems up to seven years after [the] end of life date. For SAIT2 this has not been set - in fact we already know that we will be offering SAIT2 solutions throughout 2009, so customers are safe until 2016."
The current examination of the Sony Electronics business unit has not begun with advance notice of product stoppages. David Bush, Sony's EMEA marketing director for its Professional business unit, said: "We have no information about any changes to product plans. It's business as usual... All businesses are being vigorously looked at. We're at the start of a process and I don't know, frankly, what the outcome will be."
Inside Sony Electronics the Sony Professional business unit is actually having a quite good year. Bush said: "It's performing strongly and growing year-on-year. I'm not expecting any major changes in any of our business domains."
Hard times make for hard choices, and in many markets a volume leader product wins out over other products that may have technical advantages. Sony has been hit twice with this hammer: Betamax losing out to VHS video tape, and now AIT/SAIT giving way to DAT and LTO magnetic tape.
Blu-ray is another story, with the only competitor - Toshiba's HD-DVD - trounced, and Plasmon's UDO looking very sick indeed. Blu-ray got the volume via PlayStation sales and that proved key. That optical format is Sony's Blu-ray of hope in the data storage business. ®