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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the May 2002 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses discusses two lost cost data tape standards, Travan and VXA-2…

Cost Low Option

Back in November, we looked at midrange tape formats. Big, fast and, a bit spendy. I know that, for many of you, a thousand dollars is a serious chunk of your annual equipment budget. Still in all, you need to back up your stuff. But how, without breaking the bank?

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the cheapest ways to do the backup boogie is use another disk. Head on over to and do a quick search for Home > Computers > Storage > IDE Hard Drives. At $200 a pop, 80 GB IDE disks make a great container for disk–to–disk backups. This assumes your computer can handle another drive. If not, factor in the additional cost of an HBA and the time needed to get the beast configured properly. You can also pick up on a USB enclosure for an additional 100 bucks and put those extra USB spigots to use. The potential downside of that solution is backup time since USB 1.x is so poky. While USB 2 and 1394 are quite speedy, in many cases they might also require yet another expense in the form of an HBA.

There’s a hidden liability of using additional disks as backup. Extra disk space sits there on your Desktop, staring you in the face! Unless one possesses a steely, ninja–like will, one tends to use up every last byte of available space. Woops, still no backup.

For slightly more moola, you can go to an off–line solution that’s reasonably priced, long lived, rugged and is proven technology to boot. I’m talking about Shaft, er, sorry…wrong column. I’m talking about QIC, a most ancient tape format that may just fit your backup bill.

I know, in the past I’ve dissed quarter inch tape but that was before the current slow recovery. The word of the day is VALUE and QIC has that in spades. QIC is a venerable format originally based on a Quarter Inch tape Cartridge, hence the name. In 1972, the tape wizards at 3M introduced the QIC linear format for storing info from telecommunications and data acquisition applications. At the time, it competed with half inch, open reel tape, those things you always see spinning in the machine room in 50’s sci–fi movies.

In 1995, Imation launched improved QIC or Travan technology and Seagate partnered with them to develop drives based on this standard. The family has grown from its original 400 MB QIC version to the current implementation, providing 10 GB native capacity. Travan, though based on and backward compatible with QIC, is an evolved version based on 0.315 inch tape. With compression, a Travan drive can do up to 85 Mbytes per minute, nothing too impressive but hey, these things are cheap! Three hundred smackers will buy you an internal ATAPI mechanism and, for an extra $100, you can get a FireWire or USB external.

Unlike the DDS format against which it competes, Travan is a simple concept originally designed, from the ground up, for data storage. The cartridge is similar to a large, metal Philips cassette. The tape never leaves the cartridge and is only touched by the recording head. The stationary head, in conjunction with a short, straight tape path means the drive mechanism can be simple, with few motors and moving parts. Another advantage over DDS is the incredibly long life of the format. This puppy just won’t die, whereas DDS and ADR, another cost conscious alternative, have no clear future.

Currently, there 12 to 15 million QIC drives in use, several times more than all other formats combined. Of those, 10 million are Travan. Last November, Seagate and 3M announced a new, 7th generation iteration of the Travan platform scheduled to double the native capacity to 20 GB and boost the throughput to 120 Mbytes per minute.

While Seagate and 3M work their elves hard, the folks over at Exabyte haven’t been sitting around drinking frosty mugs of Oasis, at least during business hours. They’ve been preparing the next generation of their value oriented product, the VXA-2. Spec’d at 80 GB native capacity with a 360 Mbyte per minute throughput, OEMs are currently evaluating the SCSI mechanism for shipment later this year. These improvements come at an unexpected price, about the same as VXA-1! Granted, this is a good bit more than a Travan drive but, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. To sweeten the deal, the cost of VXA media is coming down as well.

Whichever format you choose, there’s a flavor of tape for every taste and budget. And Travan, the long lived value leader, is the clear choice for the cash strapped fader jockey of today. So, if you’re still making excuses for your lack of a disaster recovery strategy, march your sorry butt over to the nearest retailer and pick up a Travan.


OMas, after consulting Martha Stewart on the subject of proper sartorial protocol, always runs backups while dressed in his bunny slippers. This column was written while under the classic influences of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out and Delos’ hybrid SACD of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.