SureStore Ultrium LTO sets speed records

The enterprise tape backup market sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from, for example, the highly explosive security and Internet traffic monitoring spaces, with their constant paradigm shifts, product evolution and breaking news. But this open-standard LTO tape product marks the emergence of seminal tape technology.

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By  Jon Tullett Published  January 24, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Soon after receiving Hewlett-Packard's recently released Ultrium LTO drive, I understood the significance of the product. After all, what's more important than having a comprehensive backup of your organization's data? Although not exactly a sexy product, this tape drive certainly warrants your attention regardless of where your IT interests lie.

The enterprise tape backup market sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from, for example, the highly explosive security and Internet traffic monitoring spaces, with their constant paradigm shifts, product evolution and breaking news. But this open-standard LTO tape product marks the emergence of seminal tape technology.

A tape revolution begins

When we last visited the LTO backup technology, LTO drives had just begun to trickle onto the market. Now readily available, LTO marks the beginning of a whole new generation of tape drives. Hewlett-Packard gave me the chance to pass one of its new HP SureStore Ultrium 230 drives across the workbench.

So what makes the HP SureStore Ultrium 230 such a dramatic improvement over its DLT (Digital Linear Tape)-based predecessors? The drive's numbers show that the SureStore handily clobbers Quantum's DLT 8000 in terms of both performance and capacity. The SureStore Ultrium 230 is specified to have a native transfer rate of 15 MB per second and a capacity of 100 GB per tape; with compression, those numbers shoot up to an astonishing 30 MB per second and 200 GB, respectively.

Compare those statistics with the DLT 8000's 6-MB-per-second performance numbers and 40-GB capacity, and the significance of the SureStore becomes apparent.

Of course, these performance numbers represent a best-case scenario -- your mileage will vary depending on a number of factors, including data fragmentation, file size and compression. Still, a fivefold performance increase isn't a common occurrence. The last major technological advance in linear tape technology was the Quantum DLT 7000, in 1996.

The SureStore Ultrium 230's performance and capacity features are the result of numerous enhancements over traditional DLT technology. These enhancements include timing-based servo technology, which ensures that the write/read heads are always positioned precisely over the correct tracks; hardware data compression; optimised track layouts; and high-efficiency error-correcting code.

The SureStore Ultrium 230 drive that HP sent me is pretty basic. Nothing more than a single external-drive configuration with an Ultra SCSI interface, the SureStore Ultrium 230 is equipped only with power and tape-eject buttons. Lacking any type of LCD-based menu system, the drive is utilitarian.

However, the HP SureStore 230 is shipping with a US list price of US$6,555, and with many external DLT 8000 systems running at $5,000, that represents a significant value.

In addition, the SureStore Ultrium 230 provides peace of mind because the Ultrium LTO road map stretches well into the next decade: Debuting in the first half of next year, the Ultrium-2 will double the Ultrium-1 performance and capacity specifications.

Hewlett-Packard has charted the Ultrium line out to the end of 2007, when we should see the Ultrium-4, which will have the ability to push up to 160 MB per second of bandwidth and feature a per-tape capacity of up to 800 GB.
||**||Surprising bottlenecks|~||~||~|Eager to see if the SureStore Ultrium 230 could live up to its spec sheet, I began hunting for a platform on which to test the drive. First, I grabbed a basic white-box Intel server with a 500-MHz Pentium III, 256 MB of RAM and a couple of Ultra SCSI drives.

To my amazement, the server experienced an I/O bottleneck in the hard drive subsystem and was unable to stream data to the tape drive fast enough.

Granted, the data was a bit fragmented, and the LTO drive was on the same SCSI channel as the disk drives, but I never thought I'd see the day when my server was too slow for my tape drive.

Immediately tossing the suspect server out the door, I grabbed a Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiant DL360 with dual 800-MHz Pentium IIIs, a five-disk RAID 0 set and a dedicated Ultra SCSI card for the tape drive. No way was I going to run into an I/O bottleneck the second time around.

Running Microsoft Windows 2000 Server, I loaded up Computer Associates International's ArcServe 2000 as the backup server software. Initial installation of the SureStore Ultrium 230 onto the server was painless - I didn't encounter any SCSI problems with the system or any type of Windows 2000 issues. And, to my delight, ArcServe 2000 recognized the drive and executed all my backup jobs flawlessly.

For the actual performance testing, I created a number of backup data sets, including a 35-GB "typical" file server data set with various files ranging from 1-KB text files to 700-MB CD images representative of a typical file server.

To test the full potential of the SureStore Ultrium 230, I also created a single 35-GB data file for maximum streaming. After numerous dry runs to make sure I wouldn't encounter any system I/O issues, I was ready to roll.

The results were definitely unexpected: I'm used to seeing between 1 MB per second and 5 MB per second of throughput on a tape drive. But I was amazed to see that, while backing up the large streaming data set, the SureStore was sustaining almost 19-MB per second throughput.

In addition, the drive maintained a throughput of around 14 MB per second backing up the typical data set.

For IT professionals looking to protect their tape-drive investments - as well as their data - the HP SureStore Ultrium 230 drive is an excellent choice.

With superior capacity and performance, enhanced reliability over DLT, and the option to integrate the drive into a tape automation unit down the road, the SureStore 230 Ultrium is definitely the start of more good things to come.
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