Closing Tape’s Generational Gap

By Nicole Hemsoth

October 9, 2013

We are in Broomfield, Colorado today with tape storage company, Spectra Logic, to get a better grasp on the future direction of their storage medium’s role in both HPC and larger scale enterprise environments–both of which are being inundated with massive data growth.

As the event comes to a close, one thing is for certain–for a relatively small company in an industry that is beholden to the perception that it’s tied to an aging technology, Spectra is managing to turn its worldview around to meet a new generation of users in new data-driven markets (web-based retail, social networks, media and entertainment, etc.). The energy was palpable this week around some core refreshes to their existing line of tape products–from the massive T-Finity boxes that loom in supercomputing centers like Blue Waters to smaller tape systems that power video production at major cable networks. And for anyone who says “tape is dead” outside of the big HPC sites–think again…

While the company is set to make a major announcement later this week about its roadmap and some key products, all signs are pointing to a future that is far more heavily defined by their investments in software. During a presentation this morning describing the trajectory of their storage vision, senior executives continually emphasized that although they’re often defined as a hardware-driven company, around 80% of their employees are software engineers.

The new focus for Spectra Logic is moving beyond a hardware-centric view of tape, argued the company’s CEO, Nathan Thompson. At the core of this focus is what they’re calling “deep storage” which is focused on offering a REST interface, persistence, cost effectiveness, efficiency, security and ease of use. While of this is driven by their tape products, the real focus is on offering a native RESTful interface to robotic tape storage systems, Deep Simple Storage Service (DS3) which will allow users more open access to using tape as a long-term storage approach.

Their new DS3 interface, a RESTful interface will be supported by all of their tape products. The company emphasized how it is opening access for new users to tape as well as ISV partners and end user developers who can now leverage software clients that Spectra is making available or write their own clients. Additionally, the DS3 interface allows applications to move large quantities of data without the burdensome process and technologies that once muddled that course. Spectra says that it is thus ideal for accessing tape for large data objects. On the management front, users can tap intelligent data object reads/writes, which they say will optimize tape drive and tape media utilization and performance. DS3 supports deep storage in a wide capacity range with configurations as small as 15 terabytes and can scale past the coming exabyte era in one tape storage system.

When presenting per terabyte-based cost breakdowns across its product line, the weakness of disk as the long term storage format of choice for certain markets was rather hard to question. The problem has always been that moving over to tape, while clearly the cheaper route in terms of ROI over time, might have been clear to users, the usability and data access and movement have proven to be significant challenges.

Thomson says that his company is evolving with the market. As it stands, a great many of the users who are familiar with writing to and using tape are close to retiring and the newest generation of potential users are not likely to learn the same modes of working with tape libraries. Accordingly, as Thompson noted today, there is a new tier of storage that can target “large bulk quantities of data for extended and possibly infinite periods of time while meeting the needs of newer datacenter architectures that leverage storage in the form of data objects and utilize RESTful interfaces.” These interfaces are set to modernize access and use of tape and democratize interactions with archiving (and archived) data.

The key to Spectra’s growth on the software-driven side is contained within the RESTful interface they’ve developed that lets users talk to tape in a more modern way. Thompson pointed to a supercomputing center that is doing weather simulations that wants to add a private cloud into the mix to share data. They’re using the REST interface to allow researchers around the globe to drop their results into the cloud and tape without having the complications and specialization of writing to tape in between.

Spectra’s CMO, Molly Rector, described in detail the many benefits of object storage over file system approaches, noting that ease of use is a major component. Echoing Thompson’s belief that modernizing tape use and access by offering access to it via more common tools (the REST approach) she noted that users can move beyond the nested nature of file systems that require users to understand in detail both location and content to be able to fetch data, especially when at the petabyte level. Objects with their approach are assigned a unique ID to make the physical location of the data irrelevant, which means that objects can be moved across storage pools among one or multiple tiers, they can be shared or copied within an object store and therefore be more accessible for search, data mining and analytics across billions of objects without dealing with moving bulk data via complex, specialized tooling.

The company’s approach to deep storage is enhanced going forward by allowing users to store objects that are self-describing and are written in an open file format. Since the whole goal of tape is to offer a low cost solution to persistent, secure storage designed for data that does not require immediate access, such data can sit for an incredibly long time–until the next storage medium comes along. Migrations of petabytes (or beyond) of data is a nightmare, but by creating portability in this next generation they can make such migrations more seamless.

Thompson detailed Spectra’s growth curve from its roots in 1979 all the way into the present. While the first several years were rather flat, the privately-held company of approximately 400 people, has an attractive curve that is set to lead them into continued growth in the coming year, driven in part by emerging markets that lie outside of traditional HPC areas, including video production and web-based business operations.

Rector pointed to a distributed customer base with HPC customers making up around 18 percent of their overall business. During the event, most of the customers and interested parties we spoke with, including NASCAR’s video production lead, were in the media and entertainment space. Others, including Kevin Graham, Principal Infrastructure Architect at Yahoo, discussed how opening access to tape provides one of the most cost-effective solutions for data that does not power time-critical user services but that acts as the most efficient backend systems for helping the web giant handle internal data-intensive projects.

Spectra cited a few noteworthy revenue figures, including that they’ve seen 16% year over year growth in 2013. They have seen 14% growth in enterprise libraries and 12% growth in their midrange libraries. The company also showed off their R&D investments over the years, which following solid profitability, has hovered between 10 and 14%. This year they pushed 13% into R&D.

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