Despite the ever falling cost of disk-based storage there’s still a healthy market for tape which continues to be used for backup and long term archiving. There has, however, been a lot of consolidation both in terms of products and vendors with, as a result, only one technology worth talking about, at least as far as the enterprise is concerned?Linear Tape Open (LTO) Ultrium.

Developed and supported by a trio of vendors?IBM, HP and Quantum?the very first LTO drives were introduced back in 2000 and could store up to 100GB of data onto a specially designed cartridge at a rate of up to 15MB/sec. Since then the LTO specifications have been revised every 2-3 years with the latest implementation?LTO-5, introduced at the start of 2010?capable of storing 1.5TB per cartridge (3.0TB with compression) at up to 140MB/sec (280MB/sec compressed).

LTO-5 drives also feature on-board data encryption, using the 256-bit AES algorithm. However that’s nothing new, as encryption was originally added as part of the LTO-4 release in 2007, and is unchanged in the new version.

Interestingly the LTO Consortium recently announced details of an extended roadmap for its technology, taking it beyond LTO-6 (3.2TB and 210MB/sec) which would, otherwise, have been the last iteration. Two more implementations have now been added, LTO-7 (6.4TB and 315MB/sec) and LTO-8 (12.8TB and 472MB/sec). Given the 2-3 year gap between releases that would (optimistically) see LTO-8 products appearing sometime around 2016-17.

What is it and who is it for?

Each of the LTO vendors develops and supports its own set of products based on the LTO specification which is an open standard to insure interoperability. The StorageWorks Ultrium 3000 is one of two LTO-5 offerings from HP. It’s available as a bare half-height drive for direct fitting into a host server, in a casing for use as a standalone external drive and as part of larger tape library solutions. It can be had with a Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) or Fibre Channel interface (the latter for tape library use), with HP claiming the same capacity and throughput figures as specified in the LTO specification.

Prices start at around £2140 (ex. VAT) for the bare half-height drive, with tape library products, such as those in the StorageWorks MSL family starting at £8200 (ex. VAT). Included with the external SAS drive we were sent were drivers for use with Windows enabling it to be used with all the leading backup applications.

Also bundled was a copy of HP Data Protector Express which can be used free of charge to backup a single server. When teamed with the HP drive Data Protector supports one-button bare metal disaster recovery, again at no extra cost, although to backup and protect additional servers you have to upgrade to a full, chargeable, copy of the application.

A SAS cable is included but a host bus adapter isn’t and will be required on older servers and those without a SAS interface built-in. For our tests HP sent us a branded LSI SAS34442E SAS controller (selling at around £110 ex. VAT), which can be used in any server with a free PCI-X expansion slot. Some care is needed, however, as choice of adapter can affect performance.

As well as the new LTO-5 cartridges (around £106 ex. VAT) the Ultrium 3000 can read and write the previous generation of LTO-4 tapes and read, although not write to, LTO-3 cartridges. WORM (Write Once read Many) cartridges are also available, for archiving applications where, once written, data cannot be tampered with.

Like other LTO products, HP’s StorageWorks Ultrium 3000 is designed to appeal to companies looking to provide backup, disaster recovery and data archiving facilities. That includes small companies, although it’s not a low-end product, is far from cheap and is mainly marketed to larger enterprises needing to protect high capacity storage arrays. Here it’s most likely to be purchased as a component within a tape library.

The StorageWorks drive can also be purchased to upgrade existing libraries, enabling customers to double the available capacity with the same number of drives or reduce the number of drives required for the same level of protection.

Does it do it well?

Build quality is good and we certainly had no problems with either the StorageWorks drive or the LTO-5 tape cartridges which, assuming they’re as well made as earlier cartridges should be both reliable and long lived.

The drivers were easy to install and we were able to take full system and selective backups using the hardware and software provided then restore individual files from those copies and recover complete systems. The on-board encryption, similarly, worked very well, scrambling our data with no discernible impact on throughput.

Where does it disappoint?

Although significantly faster than previous generation LTO-4 drives, the LTO-5 StorageWorks Ultrium 3000 didn’t live up to the performance claims. That, however, is to be expected as the speed of the backup drive is only one factor in a complex equation involving the type and size of storage being backed up; the operating system used?the backup software and the server driving the whole process.

Yes, it was quick but, depending on your setup, may not deliver what might otherwise be expected. Another disappointment was the bundled Data Protector software which does the job but doesn’t quite match what’s available from the market leaders.

Would we recommend it?

For existing users of LTO-based products, the new StorageWorks Ultrium drive makes a lot of sense. It offers double the capacity and is much quicker than previous implementations making it a no-brainer for companies struggling to backup growing storage arrays in a reasonable amount of time. The only factor against its use is cost, but backwards compatibility with LTO-4 can help mitigate that while, at the same time, easing integration headaches.

For new buyers it’s got a lot to offer with library implementations delivering the best value. There are, though, plenty of alternatives around based on the same technology. We wouldn’t rush to recommend this product to smaller companies. Not because it can’t do the job or because it’s inferior in any way to competitive tape backup solutions from other vendors?far from it. It’s just way too expensive compared to disk-based backup solutions which continue to get both cheaper and better and may soon replace tape altogether as far as the SME is concerned.

Author profile: Alan Stevens

Alan Stevens has been working in the IT industry for over 30 years, during which time he has tried his hand at just about everything, from mainframe operator, through development and support roles to running his own training and project management companies. Alan combines consultancy with writing for the leading print and online IT titles, specialising in business IT and communications. An erstwhile business editor on both PC Magazine and PCW, Alan’s work can be found on all good Web sites. He also writes white papers and conducts independent tests of hardware and software.