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Sony Ships First Terabyte Tape Drives

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Sony recently shipped qualification units of its first-generation SuperAdvanced Intelligent Tape (S-AIT) to about eight OEMs, introducing a new breed of technology to the enterprise tape automation space.

S-AIT is the first half-inch drive with over 1 TB of uncompressed capacity, and Sony is targeting the drive at high-end applications like digital asset management, broadcasting, and government archiving. By the end of 2003, Sony plans to add write-once capabilities.

Volume OEM shipment of S-AIT tape drives and media will start in January,
said John Woelbern, director of OEM marketing for Sony Electronics’ Tape
Storage Solutions Division. The first wave of S-AIT automated tape library
products will hit next spring.

The initial crop of S-AIT drives offers 1.3 TB of compressed data capacity,
500 GB of native capacity, and sustained data transfer rates of 78 MB/sec
(compressed) and 30 MB/sec (native). “After this, we’ll be coming out with
a new generation about every two years, through at least four generations.
Each generation will provide twice the capacity and double the transfer
rate of the previous generation,” Woelbern contended.

With S-AIT, Sony is moving base technology developed for its lower-end AIT
line to the half-inch form factor. The half-inch market is currently
dominated by Quantum’s SDLT320 and LTO Generation 2 (Ultrium), a technology
already adopted by Seagate, HP and IBM. “We’ll compete with SDLT320 and
Ultrium, but we won’t really be head-to-head,” he predicted.

Woelbern also pointed to “some overlap and some competition” with upper-end
products like IBM MagStar, StorageTek’s 9X40, and Sony’s own Digital Tape
Format (DTF), a tape technology geared to the broadcasting industry.

“We compare very favorably on a cost per gigabyte basis,” according to
Woelbern. Sony plans to price the 5.25-inch full-height drives at about
$10,000 per drive – higher than SDLT320 and Ultrium, but lower than MagStar
and 9X40, for example. The S-AIT drives will use 600m half-inch single-reel
tape with R-MIC.

Industry analysts foresee a lot of potential. “SDLT has a large installed
base, and Ultrium has been picking up steam. S-AIT, on the other hand, is
just now rolling out the door. This is a market with lots of nuances. So
far, though, S-AIT is very impressive. It’s got all the correct
attributes,” maintained Robert Amatruda, IDC’s research manager for tape
and removable storage.

Today, SDLT320 offers only 320GB compressed capacity, whereas Ultrium
offers 400 GB, according to the AIT Technology Forum, an industry group
spearheaded by Sony. With its second generation LTO 2 product, HP is
achieving a 30 MB/sec data transfer rate. SDLT320, though, is still at
16MB/sec. Earlier this month, Quantum unveiled plans to reach 640 GB
capacity and a 64 MB/sec data transfer rate by mid-2003 with SDLT.

“S-AIT is very high-end, and this differentiates it from most of Sony’s
previous tape offerings,” Amatruda observed. “Sony’s current AIT product is
being deployed mainly in very large libraries. Sony’s been playing at the
high end, to some degree, with DTF. With SAIT, though, Sony is using the
same size of drive and cartridge as SDLT and Ultrium. This lets OEM
partners easily leverage their previous investments in half-inch

A this point, about eight OEM partners have opted to qualify the S-AIT
drives, according to Woelbern. He declined, though, to specify which ones.
“We expect the first products to ship from OEMs in March or April of next
year. This reflects the time to qualify,” Woelbern added.

Also next spring, Sony will also start integrating S-AIT technology into
its own line-up of Petasite ultra-high capacity storage systems, he said.
Currently, Petasite systems use Sony DTF drives.

Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics Industries, Ltd. (MKE) and Matsushita
Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. (MEI) are slated to serve as second sources
for S-AIT drives and media. MEI also produces Panasonic-branded products.
“MEI may be either an independent second brand, or a second source for the
Sony brand. This hasn’t been decided yet,” Woelbern said.

Sony has already done some S-AIT testing with OEMs and end customers over
the past year or two. “Now, we’ll be refining our research some more
through customer focus groups,” according to Woelbern.

Other target applications for S-AIT include medical imaging, financial
archiving, and the oil and gas industry, he said.

Woelbern also dismissed disk drive storage and back-up as a potential
rival. “Most disk drive storage today is at the very low end,” Woelbern
pointed out.

“Tape is still the main technology used for data protection backup and
archiving,” agreed IDC’s Amatruda.

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