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December 04, 2008
You may have only just started hearing about tape storage vendor Spectra Logic -- recent installations and its partnership announcement with SGI have gotten the company a lot of attention. But Spectra Logic isn't new; the company has been around for 30 years. Still privately held, Spectra Logic has built a culture of innovation and profitability that employees tend to want to stay in. As an example, the CTO has been with the company for 19 years.
With four products announced in the past 18 months alone, Spectra Logic is hoping to innovate its way around larger competitors caught up in the current financial stress by focusing exclusively on creating technology to meet the needs of its customers. Its focus on debt-free, execution-funded operations has enabled it to focus consistently on the performance that matters: customer performance.
Over past 18 months Spectra Logic has introduced four new tape library products, a very active development pace that reflects the company's commitment to innovation through R&D, and a close connection to the evolving requirements of its customers. Spectra Logic has received a slew of awards, both for the company and for its products, and has a portfolio of customers ranging from NASCAR to the Department of Energy. In HPC you can find Spectra Logic's gear in places like Argonne, Sandia, and Los Alamos National Labs.
The centerpiece of the company's high-end offering is the T950, which starts at 950 slots in 1 frame, and can grow up to 120 drives and 10,050 tape slots with a total capacity of 16 PB (compressed). One of the ways the company differentiates its offering is on environmentals: the T950 crams in 101 tapes per square foot, and the company claims the lowest power use per terabyte of data stored among competing solutions (think the Powderhorn 9310 and the SL8500).
A key factor in Spectra Logic's tape density is the bundling of tapes in trays, called TeraPacks. A TeraPack holds ten tapes, and not only increases the density of the tape storage, but also simplifies loading and unloading for operators. The company says that users can load 100 tapes in under three minutes, compared with much longer load times (up to an hour) in solutions where tapes have to be loaded one at a time.
The TeraPack format enables another interesting technology in the T-series libraries, RXT drives. The RXT drives are shock-mounted disk drives that present as 1-6 terabyte virtual tape. Packaged in a TeraPack form factor, the library robot loads the package of RAID-protected SATA drives into the library just as it would with tapes.
Molly Rector, Spectra Logic's vice president for product management, outlined a couple scenarios in which a user might want this type of solution. "Imagine site acquisition of data on a mountaintop in Chile, or seismic data collection on a ship, where the data are very valuable and you want the ability to be able to bring them back safely and conveniently. In a situation like this having a single copy on a tape would be a little nerve wracking, so having RAID-protected data that you can take from the field, safely, and import into your tape library back at the lab using your existing infrastructure can be a great solution."
Spectra Logic is a company focused on detail, and the RXT's packaging is a great example. The drive pack uses a pad of circular connectors rather than pins, so there are no worries about slight misalignments, and it doesn't matter how many times you mount the drive pack, or how many times you've moved your pack around from the field to the library.
Spectra Logic complements its high end offering with a suite of tape solutions from the starter T50, at 80 TB max capacity in 50 slots, through a variety of intermediate sizes that allow customers to gradually grow up to the T950. The company has also planned ahead in innovative ways for customers whose needs, and infrastructure, grow over time. First, in an approach it calls "transcaling," customers who need to move up Spectra Logic's product chain do so by moving the worldwide names, serial numbers, asset tags, library configuration and so on to the bigger library once it's installed, so that the upgrade just looks like a capacity expansion on the original library. You even take the product serial number with you through the upgrade, something that organizations that have to worry about asset depreciation will appreciate.
The other piece of Spectra Logic's approach to growth lies in the way the company's tape libraries are managed. As Rector explains, "Our take on tape libraries is that no matter if you have a very small tape library, or a multi-petabyte library, you should have the same features and functionality. Our BlueScale management software is the software that runs throughout our product line from a 10 slot library to a 10,000 slot solution." This is key for users who are able to tie their applications to the company's storage interface once and be assured that the investment won't be lost over time.
Spectra Logic's tape libraries are built on Linear Tape Open, or LTO, technology. LTO, also known in the market as Ultrium, is an open technology standard originally introduced in 1997 by HP, IBM, and Seagate. LTO, currently at version 4 in its technology roadmap, competes with a variety of other familiar technologies in this market, including Sony's AIT, Quantum's DLT and Super DLT, the STK 9940B and T10000b, IBM TS1130, among others.
LTO-4 tapes store 800 GB per cartridge native (1.6 TB compressed); LTO-5, scheduled for 2009, bumps that up to 1.6 TB native and 3.2 TB compressed. LTO has a high data transfer rate with a competitive average file access time, but at 62 seconds one that is slower than the leaders (AIT-5 and TS1130) by nearly 20 seconds. Still, as disk capacities have increased, tape has become primarily a long term storage mechanism, and the load time has become less significant. LTO's open technology and multiple vendor sourcing options provide cost advantages for customers, with LTO-4 tapes providing 80 percent of the capacity of the largest tape available (1 TB) at significantly lower cost.
During SC08 Spectra Logic announced a new strategic relationship with the potential to boost its penetration in the market, and one which supports the company's presence in broadcast. SGI is standardizing on Spectra Logic as its exclusive tape vendor, displacing longtime partner StorageTek (SGI will continue to work with partners DDN and LSI for its disk offerings). This change follows a year in which SGI worked with Spectra Logic's solutions through its professional services arm, installing the company's solutions in SGI customer sites around the world. SGI will resell the entire T-series line, from the SMB-sized T50e to the T950.
Spectra Logic has promising technology and a clear focus, and with the uncertainty in at least one of the major storage providers in the market right now, this is an interesting time for the company to attempt to accelerate its presence in the market. As she considers where her company fits in this landscape, Molly Rector says that the company's size and stability are a plus for its customers. "One of the big advantages that Spectra Logic has is that we're still a nimble enough company that we can make custom versions of our library software to really integrate into our customers' environments," she says. "This gives us a unique advantage, especially in the HPC market where so much of what customers do is very customized."
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