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Where is tape media headed?


By Andrew Dodd, WW Marketing Communications Manager, HP Storage Media


ADJ2_smaller2.jpgThe future direction of tape media

We’re more than eighteen months into the life of LTO-6 Ultrium, the newest version of the most successful tape backup and archiving format in existence. More than 900,000 HP LTO-6 cartridges have been sold to date, to add to the 73 million HP Metal Particle Ultrium cartridges shipped to customers since the format was launched in 2000. For that reason, LTO-6 has already surpassed its predecessor, LTO-5, in terms of adoption rates.


Demand for LTO Ultrium tape continues to grow: in the first quarter of 2014, new cartridge sales achieved a record high of over 6,400 PB (more than 6.4 billion gigabytes) of tape capacity. 





Figure 1 - Tape Media Capacity Shipments Reach Record Levels – source SCCG (May 2014)


Trend spotting

Let’s take a look at these trends in more detail and consider what the future may hold for tape media.


IDC’s Digital Universe survey is estimating a massive 40 Zettabytes (40 Billion Terabytes) of data will be created by 2020, up from just 3 Zettabytes in 2012.

This puts tape and other storage technologies in the forefront for budget and resource planning for companies across the globe. In a recent study by analysts, ESG, 92% of companies indicated they would be increasing or maintaining their storage and backup budget in 2014.


With 90% of all data never being accessed again once it’s been archived1, tape represents the ultimate last line of defence and repository for a business’s deep store of content. Offsite, offline, data stored on tape is immune to all threats from human error, software corruption hackers and viruses. With a shelf life of at least 30 years and minimal costs for power, cooling and management2, tape remains the supreme archiving technology. 


The best of both worlds

With LTO-6, a new particle technology was introduced: Barium Ferrite (BaFe). The key difference between the two storage media types is that BaFe particles are smaller in size than MP particles. That means they have superior magnetic potential that becomes significant as capacity increases. Whilst this is relevant to meeting the specifications for future generations of LTO technology, it has no impact on current LTO-6 tape customers.




HP is the only supplier selling both kinds of LTO-6 media and it has tested MP and BaFe in isolation from each other and also in combination. This exhaustive testing, representing hundreds of thousands of miles of tape being pulled through HP and non-HP drives proves beyond any doubt that both MP and BaFe perform equally well. This is important because you may well be mixing BaFe and legacy LTO-5 and LTO-4 MP tapes in your environment, as well as using one or the other according to your preference. 


As the market leader, HP has sold almost 1 million LTO-6 cartridges, of which 85% have been MP and 15% BaFe.


Format versus Formulation

It’s important to remember that neither MP nor BaFe are formats: rather they are two different formulations or materials used to make tape cartridges that satisfy the LTO specification. In much the same way as nylon and cotton are two perfectly acceptable formulations to use for making a shirt (so long as the materials meet the specification), they can be sold as an LTO product.


Because LTO is an open standard, your company can achieve compliance with the format from multiple directions, based on your technical skills, target audiences, cost structure and other factors. LTO is not, and never will be, proprietary technology and the intervening years have seen very healthy and vigorous rivalry between some of the world’s leading data storage companies.


In the world of LTO tape media, MP and BaFe are like the cotton or nylon of the earlier example. They enable you to fulfill the LTO-6 format and have been marketed using a variety of names. Brand labels like Nanocubic, Neosmart, Dternity and StoreEver are familiar to IT decision makers. But beneath the marketing, they are all LTO format compliant products. Neither MP, nor BaFe, are the format itself, nor are they the only materials that might ever be available. 


What does the future hold for LTO Ultrium?

Will we see a continued divergence between MP and BaFe when LTO-7 products begin to appear?

The straightforward answer to that question from HP’s perspective is “no.” To meet the extended capacities set out by the LTO roadmap – 16 TB for LTO-7 and 32 TB for LTO-8 – the size of the particles used to manufacture the recording surface of the tape will need to be reduced.


Further shrinking MP particles isn’t the right way forward because they would lose their coercivity and magnetic strength, which could ultimately lead to data corruption. As mentioned earlier, BaFe has great potential because of its smaller particle size and greater magnetic properties. It is also the formulation with the most prominence but researchers are investigating others that could be better suited to even higher capacities. Recent technology demonstrations have shown that cartridges with over 180 TB of capacity are possible.


Conclusions from a tape fanboy – and then some

If IDC’s estimates are correct, and the Digital Universe will be approaching 40 Zettabytes (40 Billion Terabytes) by 2020, tape cartridges will be required with vastly greater capacities than even the 32 TB promised by LTO-8.


This is not just wishful thinking on behalf of a tape fanboy. The core benefits of tape remain compelling when you look at them from the standpoint of cost, scalability, durability and potential for future innovation.


Although some companies are already promoting their BaFe products as the future direction of the LTO format, in HP’s opinion, it’s too early to say with certainty that this will be the only choice at the end of the decade.


What is clear is that HP and the other LTO Ultrium TPCs have defined the specifications of the format for licensees, like media companies, to follow. Nowhere in the LTO specification does it stipulate the use of one media formulation versus another.  Storage vendors and academic researchers are currently evaluating a number of different technologies, some of which may be suitable for the super-capacity cartridges of the future.


In HP’s opinion, as the market leader in LTO Ultrium tape media, and as a TPC, this freedom at the heart of the format is not just good for innovation and good for tape, it’s squarely in the best interests of your, our customer. For that reason, I continue to remain positive about the future prospects of the tape industry!


Learn more about HP Storage Media.




1 Study by University of California Santa Cruz looking into disk access patterns for the network of a large local business over 22 TB of disk-based data."

2 Clipper Group: Revisiting the Search for Long-Term Storage - A TCO Analysis of Tape and Disk



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