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Tape backup continues to dominate

Oct 20, 20033 mins
Backup and RecoveryEnterprise Applications

Despite a variety of back-up systems and media, Sony proves tape provides best value.

Tape backup systems predate personal computers and refuse to die. In fact, based on the new Sony StorStation I’ve been testing, tape systems may endure as the media of choice for offsite data storage. Why? Because the drive puts 130G bytes of storage onto a cartridge the size of a deck of cards, and is relatively cheap.

In September I tested RocketVault, which uses a back-up server that connects to remote storage services on the Internet (see editorial link below). It’s clever and well done, but pricey at $1,495 plus online storage fees. In contrast, Sony’s StorStation AIT e130-UL costs $1,300, which includes back-up software and one tape, plus $75 for each additional cartridge.

Sony knows plenty about recording and reading tape, from its first Walkman to camcorders to a full line of tape back-up units. AIT, Sony’s label for Advanced Intelligent Tape, refers to improvements made to the 8mm digital tape cartridge. Sony puts a memory chip in the cartridge to hold the tape’s system log and search map for faster file location, a feature I haven’t seen elsewhere at this price point. All this fits into a 3.5-inch cartridge.

The Sony StorStation external system uses either FireWire or USB 2.0 to connect to a desktop PC, laptop or server computer system, and is labeled AIT-2 for the second generation of AIT drives. The USB connection works with (pre-2002) USB 1.1 connections as well, which many of us still use.

For the first test, I plugged the StorStation into a Pentium II running Windows 2000. The drive grabbed data quickly, averaging between 45M and 60M bytes per minute. The higher speeds came when backing up data from the attached computer’s hard disk; lower speeds when backing up directories from the Linksys EFG80 NAS across the network.

Once files are backed up, the 1Safe software from 1Vision Software (included with the drive) did an excellent job providing a catalog of backed-up files on the cartridge. With so much capacity, you can copy files from a variety of computers onto one cartridge, and the software helps you keep track. Finding and restoring files works quickly because the smart cartridge locates files quickly. The software provides options for saving the system registry and other details to make recovery from a catastrophic failure (such as replacing your hard drive) a one-step process.

Unfortunately tape systems have a reputation for being cantankerous. Sometimes, tapes written by one drive can’t be read by a second drive. Always restore files to verify your back-up success once a month or more.

Sony’s AIT-1 systems cram 90G bytes onto the 8mm cartridge, and its just-barely-released AIT-3 systems cram in an incredible 260G bytes – but are only available in autoloader (higher capacity and price) models now. Sony says it plans to put 800G bytes on a cartridge in three or four years.

Checking prices for other tape back-up systems, I found no other vendor has an external 130G-byte drive the size of cigar box. The cheapest high-density drive I could find from Certance held 20G bytes per cartridge and cost $340. Most systems are in the $750 to $1,000 range. Sony gives you more than seven times the storage per cartridge for only four times the price of the cheapest model. But remember, if you want to back up 100G bytes unattended (overnight), you must have a system that will hold that much on a single tape.