LTO Has Had a Hard Year

Posted on by Larry

LTO tape technology has had a hard year. In 2018, manufacturers of LTO drives – Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Quantum and IBM – released the new LTO-8 drives. Providing up to 12 TB of native (uncompressed) storage, these doubled the capacity of the preceding LTO-7 standard.

The problem was that – somewhat before the LTO-8 release – the two manufacturers of LTO tape – Sony and Fujifilm – sued each other in US Federal Court, each alleging patent infringement. The cases became so intense that almost all manufacturing of LTO-8 tape stock ended.

So, we could buy LTO-8 drives, but not the tape needed to record our data; at least to the maximum 12 TB capacity of LTO-8.

As Janet Lafleur, with BackBlaze, wrote in June, 2019: “The pain of this delay is most acute for media professionals who are always quick to adopt higher capacity storage media for video and audio files that are notorious storage hogs. As cameras get more sophisticated, capturing in higher resolutions and higher frame rates, the storage capacity required per hour of content shoots through the roof. For example, one hour of ProRes UltraHD requires 148.72 GB storage capacity, which is four times more than the 37.35 GB required for one hour of ProRes HD-1080. Meanwhile, falling camera prices are encouraging production teams to use more cameras per shoot, further increasing the capacity requirements.”

There was a work-around. LTO drives support reading and writing one format back. So, an LTO-8 drive could read and write LTO-7 media. Consequently, LTO-8 owners were buying LTO-7 media simply to be able to archive their stuff.

As well, new LTO-7 tapes could be formatted as LTO-7M, which held 9 TB of data. While not the full 12 TB capacity of LTO-8, this was still 3 TB better than before.

But, there were gotchas: LTO-7M tapes could only be read by LTO-8 drives. Long-term, your data would quickly become inaccessible. You could continue writing data using LTO-6, but tapes in that format could not be read by any LTO-7 or later drives, due to a change in how the magnetic tape heads work.

The net result is that for the last year, the tape industry was treading water, waiting for LTO-8 tapes to become available.


(Source: Ultrium, the LTO Consortium. www.lto.org)

In August, 2019, Fujufilm and Sony agreed to a global patent cross-licensing deal for LTO-7, -8 and -9 tapes. They also ended all current litigation. Although neither Fujifilm nor Sony are talking about their agreement, the LTO Program Technology Provider Companies (TPC’s) announced that Fujifilm and Sony had resolved their lawsuits and will start producing LTO-8 tape media with availability in the fourth quarter of 2019. In other words, the wait for tape will soon be over.

Still, a year’s worth of tape and drive sales were either lost or stalled, making the process of archiving our assets just that much more challenging. This delay probably also means that the roll-out of LTO-9, which doubles the capacity of LTO-8, originally expected in late 2019, probably won’t happen for a while.

Earlier this year, the TPC’s released the latest roadmap for LTO technology, going out to Generation 12. Media creators need to pay attention to the Native storage option, as media files are already compressed. As you can see from the chart above, Gen 9 doubles the capacity of Gen 8. What was not announced was specifically when we could expect this new technology.

SUMMARY

For those with massive assets to backup and with limited Internet bandwidth, LTO tape remains the best choice for protecting assets for the long-term. But the legal fight between the two remaining suppliers of blank LTO tape media points out that we are all still vulnerable to industry disputes affecting our ability to protect our assets.

The good news is that, at least for now, tapes will soon become widely available.


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