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Tape remains the leader of the backup pack, delivering more bytes for the storage buck than even the lowest-cost disk drives.

Tape thrives because every information technology executive worth his or her onions recognizes the absolute need to keep copies of any data that affects operations or financial results. Obviously, companies must ensure they can conduct business even if their primary databases go haywire. But also underscoring the importance of tape storage are government regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the healthcare arena, which are forcing organizations to retain electronic records for years—or even decades.

Because backup and archiving systems are effectively insurance policies for data, reliability is everything. Seasoned backup administrators like tape storage because it’s proven to be extremely dependable. “I’ve been working in the I.T. field for 20 years, and it’s rare that I’ve ever seen a tape go bad,” says Gabriel Calderon, a systems administrator who handles backup for the Denver International Airport.

The next generation of tape storage products promises to pack even more data into smaller spaces. Storage Technology, which pioneered the tape library category in the late 1980s, this year plans to introduce its biggest new entry in this segment in almost a decade: The StreamLine, which will be able to hold as many as 200,000 tapes at a density of 50 tapes per square foot.

In the library category, the two dominant tape formats—which define cartridges’ physical characteristics—are Linear Tape Open (LTO), backed by Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Certance; and Quantum’s Super Digital Linear Tape (SDLT). In 2000, the Linear Tape Open consortium delivered its first products, which were bigger and faster than Quantum’s tape drives at the time, and last year doubled the format’s speed (to up to 35 million bytes per second) and capacity (to 200 billion bytes per tape). Quantum hasn’t yet recovered: Gartner Dataquest says Linear Tape Open drives outshipped Super Digital Linear Tape two-to-one for the first nine months of 2003. “Generally people are happy with DLT, but LTO has a lot more traction,” says Mark Teter, chief technology officer for Advanced Systems Group, a storage reseller based in Denver.

Still, while tape is the standard for backup and archiving today, a shift is underway toward using low-cost disk drives as the building blocks for large data repositories to supplement tape storage systems. Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) disk drives—the variety commonly found in desktop PCs—are about a penny per million bytes, compared with typical enterprise disk storage systems that are 10 times or more expensive. In fact, the major suppliers of tape storage, including ADIC, Quantum and StorageTek, have rolled out disk-based backup systems in anticipation of changing customer requirements.

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