Python Offers Intelligent, Provocative Approach to Tape Automation

Spectra Logic proves it offers products and pragmatism; Python will raise the bar for other vendors.

In the past, if the folks at Spectra Logic could be labeled with any moniker, it was engineering savvy. CEO and Chairman Nathan C. Thompson was every bit the engineering geek as his CTO, Matthew Starr, or his VP of advanced engineering—one of the best in the business—Hossein ZiaShakeri. Back in the 1990s, management’s geek streak showed in everything the company made, accounting for a family of some of the industry’s most reliable and cost-effective tape automation offerings.

Spectra Logic tape libraries initially focused on 8mm technology: Mammoth and Mammoth 2 from Exabyte, AIT, and so forth. When the company announced it was heading into the realm of half-inch tape a year or two ago, it was exciting to anticipate what they could do with technologies such as LTO, DLT, and AIT to enhance their efficiency and affordability in automated tape platforms using these formats.

An earlier column did question the efficacy of going to LTO first, given the differences in the throating specifications (how the tape media inserts into a drive) between the Seagate, IBM, and HP variants of the drives to be used with the common media specification. It seemed like an engineering quagmire that even Thompson and company would want to avoid. It seemed that someone had been buying into what the LTO Consortium had been dishing out (up to that point) about the universality of their specifications.

It is a pleasure to report that Spectra Logic has proven me wrong. Their new tape automation platform, previously known as “Python” but now wearing the more verbose handle “Spectra T950 tape library with Python architecture,” provides an intelligent and provocative approach to half-inch tape automation that will raise the bar for other vendors.

Basically, the product is engineered to support any half-inch format drive: not just LTO, but also Super DLT (SDLT) and the emerging Super AIT (SAIT) formats from Quantum and Sony respectively, as well as AIT media.

To my way of thinking, it is proof that Spectra Logic is as business savvy as it is engineering savvy—a combination that is required if you want to stay in business these days. In a frank, gloves-off, discussion last week with Spectra Logic’s VP of Business Development, Nicholas Harper, and ZiaShakeri, the evidence of this business pragmatism was overwhelming.

Harper told me the company was avoiding the lock-in to a specific technology in an effort to be more responsive to market demands. “The Spectra T950 is not a leap. It fits into a customer’s existing infrastructure, whether their preferred tape technology is DLT, AIT, or LTO. We also support connectivity via traditional parallel SCSI, native Fibre Channel, Gigabit Ethernet with the Network Data Management Protocol (NDMP), or even iSCSI.” (He proudly asserts, by the way, that Spectra Logic was first to market with an iSCSI-connected tape library.)

Questioned about the issue of interconnect superiority (which works best for backups), Harper sidestepped the burgeoning “holy war” as irrelevant from a marketing standpoint, “We find that about 80 percent of our customers are preferring to connect up with Fibre Channel these days. We don’t specify what kind of interconnect they should use—we just try to meet the demand. Most customers don’t care what protocol is used to hook up the library, they just want to make the pain go away.”

Should vendors like Spectra Logic play a more assertive role in articulating the advantages of one interconnect over another in mission critical applications like data protection? ZiaShakeri stepped up to the plate with an answer: “We produce white papers to discuss the results we are obtaining in our labs with different interconnects. Is native Fibre Channel a better solution than bridged FC (FC between servers and bridges, then parallel SCSI from the bridge to a SCSI-based array)? Performance depends a lot on the bridge. We’ve found that write speeds are comparable, though you may take a bit of a hit on reading information back from tape in a bridged configuration.

"We have also found that GigE with Jumbo Frames has a very positive effect on streaming backups of file systems and may outperform Fibre Channel as an interconnect. But once TCP Offload Engines (TOE) are perfected and iSCSI provides a more efficient interconnect, the issue of GigE versus FC really won’t matter.”

The bottom line, according to Harper, is that Spectra Logic isn’t in the business of telling customers how they should configure their environments. Rather, the customer is telling Spectra Logic what it wants.

For example, customers are not demanding compliance with quasi-standard management approaches such as Common Information Model (CIM) or the Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S) from SNIA, so Spectra Logic isn’t supporting these management techniques on its current crop of products. “We’ve maintained an active role in the development of CIM Model for our products, but we haven’t seen a lot of value for the effort, so we have pushed the completion of the compliance to a later releases,” Harper explains. Spectra Logic supports management via a front panel interface, a browser-based Web interface and “send mail” functionality that, according to Harper, “is easily implemented and used by our customers.”

A big advancement in the Spectra T950 that addresses often-heard customer requirements is improved “density.” Its “TeraPack” media management system crams three to five times as much storage capacity into a smaller footprint than any library currently on the market, he claims. (This is a direction that is being taken by a number of tape vendors that will be announcing density improvements over the next few months.) Capacity on Demand features further enable the customer to buy the capacity needed today and to scale later as requirements change.

Spectra Logic continues to impress with its solid tape automation line and with its ability to remain outside the fray of storage industry politics. Harper summarized it correctly: “We’re not doing anything that clever—just talking to our customers.”

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.