Spectra Logic Goes After HPC Elite with New Tape Library

By Michael Feldman

November 10, 2009

Spectra Logic, a provider of premier tape backup and archive solutions, has unveiled its new top-of-the-line T-Finity tape library. The product is aimed at high-end HPC installations and other application areas that require the ultimate in storage capacity and sophistication.

Spectra, which is celebrating its 30th birthday this week, has been making a play for the high performance computing market of late, and frankly, is the only tape vendor that seems focused on the HPC space right now. With its midrange T-Series lineup, the company has grabbed a number of wins at NASA Ames Research Center, Argonne National Lab, and a handful of TeraGrid sites. Spectra has also managed to attract SGI, and more recently, Cray, as resellers of its tape library systems.

In the process, the company has been working closely with HPC customers to meet the nearline archive storage requirements for the current crop of high-end supercomputers in the field as well as the next generation of multi-petaflop systems. It’s easy enough to aggregate a number smaller-sized libraries together to meet capacity requirement, but HPC users generally prefer a single storage library and name space for ease of use. The T-Finity is one of the few tape libraries designed to deal with the massive data generated by these machines.

With a maximum library capacity of 45 PB (180 PB for a multi-library setup), the T-Finity’s nearest competition is Sun Microsystems’ StorageTek SL8500, which theoretically tops out at 15 PB per library and 106 TB for the multi-library configuration. Sun is a major competitor of Spectra’s in the tape backup/archive arena, but with the ongoing uncertainties surrounding the Oracle acquisition, Spectra has been aggressively courting Sun customers. Now that the company has the T-Finity in its lineup, Spectra believes it can match the StorageTek tape portfolio petabyte for petabyte.

Beyond just raw capacity, the new Spectra offering outshines the StorageTek SL8500 in a number of key areas, says Molly Rector, the company’s vice president for product management. According to her, where the system really excels is storage density. At up to 72 TB per square foot of floor space, the T-Finity is 44 percent denser than its StorageTek SL8500 rival.

“How we do that is by physically architecting the library differently — taking advantage of the cubic footage, instead of just the square footage,” explains Rector. The tapes are stored in 10-pack cartridges, which fit into tall file cabinet-like frames. Significantly, the frame has a standard rack footprint, which is often not always the case with tape library units. The standard footprint is important in many HPC datacenters, not to mention many ultra-scale enterprise datacenters, where arranging the compute, network and storage boxes into nice neat rows is often the only layout permissible.

Because of the storage density and tight architectural design, the system delivers exceptional power efficiency, says Rector. T-Finity uses just 0.35 watts per TB stored — less than 1/2 the power used by StorageTek SL8500. This is especially important in datacenters that are already maxed out on their power draw. Even in energy-rich datacenters, reduced power usage over a three-year period could translate into a cost savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Spectra has made the upgrade path from its midrange T-series relatively painless, since much of the componentry is upwardly compatible. Sites moving from, say, a  Spectra T950 to the T-Finity will need new enclosures, but the tape drives, power supplies, and the configuration databases can all be retained. From a user’s point of view, the endearing feature here is that the rebuilt system looks like the same library, just bigger. This feature is perhaps less important to the big national labs that tend to build entire new systems from scratch, but for commercial HPC installations in areas like financial services or oil & gas, growing the tape archive is often done on top of current deployments.

Spectra is able to offer this level of upgradeability because the software architecture implements virtualization technology that maintains a logical name space and library layout. This enables a seamless exchange of physical tape drives and controllers without any reconfiguration — an especially important capability for multi-petabyte data stores, given the inevitability of drive failures for systems this size.

After storage density, integrated lifecycle management is probably the second most important capability for the HPC market. Spectra’s BlueScale management system software will proactively notify the administrator when various thresholds have been exceeded on media or other components. For example, a “Stoplight Report” is generated that displays the condition of the tape units: red for retire the tape; yellow to indicate data is still OK, but to stop writing; and green if the media is fine. For a system that may contain 100,000 tape slots, a feature such as this is essential for keeping the system operational. The latest improvement is its “ScanTape” feature, which pre-scans a tape when it’s initially loaded, and subsequently verifies the integrity of data after the tape is written. According to Rector, there is no comparable capability on any other tape library product on the market today.

T-Finity is currently being evaluated at Argonne National Lab and NASA Ames, both of which have deployed Spectra’s T950, the company’s previous top-of-the-line offering. Cray is planning to ship a system toward the end of November, but T-Finity will go into general production in December, when it will have limited availability.

The price of a minimally-configured system — two tape drives plus the BlueScale management software — is $218,500. Rector says the purchase price is comparable to its StorageTek competition, but with the bonus of having the high-end management software and services included. Because of its efficiency in space and power, Spectra is claiming 30 percent lower TCO.

The company is expecting most of the T-Finity sales will be in the HPC market. But because of the product’s high-end specs, the new system should get some traction in the media and entertainment space, especially where broadcasters are dealing in HD video. T-Finity should also be suitable as a backup storage platform in the federal and enterprise IT spaces, where extreme capacity or high availability is paramount.

At its maximum multi-library configuration, it should certainly have plenty of headroom for any computer system being conceived of today. Potentially, though, the system could scale even higher. “There’s no reason a few years from now we couldn’t add more frames,” suggests Rector. “By that point, tape media capacity will have doubled also. So without changing it’s physical size, a 180 PB system today will be twice as big three years from now.”

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