I’ve been using Hewlett Packard LTO tape drives to backup and archive important camera footage for about 6 years, and have never lost a single frame of footage. Just recently, an old client called to see if — hope against hope — I still had footage from a long-ago shoot, and I grabbed a tape that had been untouched for 5 years and restored the footage quickly and reliably. The same can’t be said of hard drives: during that same stretch of time, I booted up a hard drive that had sat on the shelf for just a couple of years, and found it couldn’t offload a project without quitting during the copy (being mechanical, hard drives are more prone to failure than tape, but sitting unused for years can dramatically up their risk of failure).
So I’m a believer in LTO tape, and now, in early 2016, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (as it’s now known after the original HP split into two companies) has introduced its new StoreEver LTO-7 Ultrium 15000 tape drive, which is one of the first products that works with the newly released LTO-7 spec. Pop an LTO-7 tape into the drive, and you can store a whopping 6TB of video that’s rated to physically last up to 30 years. That capacity is perfect for the high-res, data-rich footage produced by most cameras these days.
And you can read and write all that data blazingly fast: the spec calls for theoretical speeds up to 300MB/s, and I’ve gotten real-world transfers around 290MB/s. That’s approaching the performance of some SSDs and wipes the floor with conventional spinning hard drives, which tend to top out around 140MB/s.
I highly recommend the LTO format and this new Ultrium 15000 drive for peace-of-mind protection of your most important digital assets, but if you do want to take advantage of LTO, the one thing to keep in mind is that it’s not exactly a plug-and-play experience. Besides the LTO drive itself, you’ll need another piece of hardware to connect it to modern Macs via Thunderbolt, and then you’ll need to decide what kind of software you’ll use to move your data on and off the LTO tape.
Here, in my experience, is a run-down of each component you need to get LTO working on the Mac…
The StorEver Ultrium 15000 Drive
Again, the Ultrium 15000 (about $4500 at launch) adheres to the specs of the LTO-7 format, which means it can store 6TB of raw data on an LTO-7 tape cartridge. That’s enough to archive a several-day project shot at 4K resolution, with a data rate in the neighborhood of 450mb/s. The same can’t be said for the older LTO-6 format from 2013, which only stores 2.5TB per cartridge.
Those LTO-7 tapes you feed the Ultrium 15000 can come from a variety of manufacturers (HP, IBM, Sony, Fuji), but as of May 2016, they all cost about $135 per tape. Compared to a conventional 6TB hard drive, those prices are still relatively cheap (the lowest-priced 6TB drive I found on Amazon was $200, with most models considerably more), but LTO tape prices historically drop over time. For instance, LTO-6 tapes initially cost around $140 per unit in 2013, but for the last year or more, they’ve been in the $27-$35 range, which is easily half the price of 2TB hard drives while delivering a lot more reliability.
And speaking of tapes, every LTO drive can read/write to its same tape generation as well as the one before it, and it can read from tapes two generations back. That means that LTO drives can work with tapes that were created several years earlier, without having to worry about incompatibilities with whatever the newest tape drive generation happens to be. The LTO 6 tapes I made over the last 3 or so years are readable in my new LTO 7 drive, and will be readable in an LTO-8 drive as well. That should cover me from 2013 till around 2022.
You can’t delete individual files/folders from an LTO tape to recover space, but you can re-use tapes, writing over them repeatedly (they’re rated for 100,000 rewrites).
As for the Ultrium 15000 drive itself, it’s very straightforward to use. There’s a power button which boots it up in about 5 seconds, and an Eject button for the tape, along with some status LEDs. It has a small, desk-friendly footprint, weighing about 17 pounds and measuring about 12” deep, 8.5” wide and 3” high. That makes it small enough to fit under my Apple Thunderbolt Display, so it takes no appreciable real estate on a desk. You can also buy the drive as an internal unit that installs in a computer case. (http://www8.hp.com/us/en/products/tape-drives-enclosures/index.html#!view=column&page=1)
The drive is also reasonably quiet. If it’s just idling, you can easily hear its internal fan whirring away from 3 or so feet, but it tends to blur into white noise after a little while. The Ultirum gets louder when it’s actually writing or reading data, and is definitely not conducive to deep concentration, but since most archiving jobs last an hour or two, it’s not a big deal.
Connecting the Ultrium Drive to the Mac with the RocketStor 6328
The Ultrium 15000 has only one MiniSAS port on the back, which you won’t find natively on any Mac in existence (not to mention most PCs). For modern Macs of the last few-to-several years, the most convenient and most economical way to connect the Ultrium 15000 is to buy Highpoint’s RocketStor 6328 (about $700), which is a little box that has two MiniSAS ports on the back, along with two Thunderbolt 2 ports. You use a MiniSAS cable to connect the Ultrium to the 6328, and a Thunderbolt cable from the 6328 to your Mac Pro, iMac, Macbook Pro, or Mac Mini.
The RocketStor 6328 is a little bigger than a box of checks.
The RocketStor 6328 isn’t the only device that can act as a middleman for Thunderbolt Macs. As an alternative, you could get a Thunderbolt chassis like OWC’s Mercury Helios (about $300), and then add a PCIe MiniSAS card into that, like ATTO’s ExpressSAS H680 (about $320). But now you’ve got a fairly big, noisy-fan box from one manufacture, carrying an old-school PCIe card from another manufacturer, whereas the RocketStor 6328 is one single unit, that’s small enough to fit in one hand, with a modest fan that you can’t hear when you put it a few feet away.
But the RocketStor adds even more value because it includes a full-blown RAID controller in its small case, which can simultaneously provide RAID functionality (RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, 10, 50 and JBOD) for a 4-drive enclosure like Highpoint’s RocketStor 6414S (about $300). That 4-drive 6414S connects to the 6328’s second available MiniSAS port, and in fact it could also control bigger, 8-drive enclosures using both of its MiniSAS ports, but then you wouldn’t have a port available for the Ultrium.
The RocketStor’s second MiniSAS port can control an optional 4-drive RAID enclosure, and it’s second Thunderbolt 2 lets you daisy-chain other Thunderbolt peripherals.
This dual 4-drive RAID/LTO drive functionality makes the 6328 useful for anyone who likes the idea of getting affordable, hardware-based RAID functionality for a pittance, and it’s pretty much a perfect solution for DITs and media offloaders. You can throw four big drives into the 6414S, easily configure them as a speedy RAID 5 (so if one drive fails, the RAID remains intact) and offload media cards quickly to the RAID. Then, you can back up that footage straight to your Ultrium 15000 drive, all thanks to the same little device.
So that’s why I recommend using the Highpoint 6328 with any Mac that has a Thunderbolt port. I’ve been using the 6328 to connect my Ultrium 15000 to a 2013 Mac Pro for about two months, and its performance has been flawless.
(Note: the 6328 has a less expensive cousin – the Rocketstor 6328L – that doesn’t have RAID functionality but that model also doesn’t work with LTO drives.)
(Okay, last note: I’ve seen one LTO manufacturer that sells tape drives with built in Thunderbolt ports, so you can skip a middleman like the 6328. But those drives are not native Thunderbolt. They include SAS-to-Thunderbolt hardware built into the case, and you pay a premium for that and also don’t get the added RAID functionality that the 6328 offers.)
Choosing LTO Software
Once you’ve got the Ultrium drive working with the RocketStor 6328, the last step is to decide what kind of software you’ll use to archive and restore your data to the tapes. Unlike typical external hard drives, the Mac OS can’t recognize or work with LTO tape natively, so you need some kind of add-on software to make all the magic happen. Fortunately, you have a few choices, from “free with a few limitations” to “less free with more features”. Here are the options…
LTFS Archiving for Free
LTFS is an industry-standard format for storing data on LTO tape, which lets different LTO drives from different manufacturers work with the same tapes.
To get the Ultrium 15000 working with LTFS , you need to download and install drivers and an app called from HPE. You can download them all in one package right here from HPE’s web site (be sure to look at the Read Me file included, because you need to install the software in a particular order.)
The free StoreOpen app lets you format a tape, mount and unmount it and run diagnostics.
Once you’ve installed the software, you can use HPE’s StoreOpen app to format and then mount your LTO tape in the LTFS format. Formatting just takes a moment, and involves creating a partition at the beginning of the tape, which is used to hold the file directory for the whole tape. After formatting your tape, you also use HPE’s app to mount the tape, where it becomes available as a volume in the Mac’s Finder (or Windows’ Explorer, etc.) Now you can drag files to it/from it like you would any other volume. You can also send the tape over to any other colleagues with LTFS-supported tape drives, and they can pop the tape in and work with it as well.
LTFS sounds really convenient, and it is up to a certain point. You reach that point when you start to interact with the tape’s files and folders, as you would with files/folders on a hard drive (ie, opening up folders to see what’s inside of them, getting info on items, trying to look at image thumbnails, etc). This everyday behavior can quickly become a hassle, because of the nature of tape. Obviously, tape is linear and while file data is stored across the whole tape, the tape’s file directory is stored at the beginning of the tape. That forces the tape drive to rewind and fast forward as you interact with it.
For instance, after I copied a bunch of files from an LTFS tape to my hard drive, I went back to the LTFS tape’s Finder window, and opened another folder to see what was inside. What followed was almost a minute of tape scanning before I could see the folder’s contents (while the Finder displayed a spinning beachball for much of that time). Switching from the Finder’s List view to Column view sent the tape scanning for another dozens of seconds, and even closing a folder can cause the tape drive to move to another place on the tape.
The point is: don’t overestimate the benefit of mounting an LTO tape on your computer’s desktop. Even though it mounts like a hard drive, it doesn’t perform like a hard drive (another example: you can’t delete files from an LTO tape, only re-write over the entire tape). So if you go the LTFS route, you’ll want to develop some archival/organizational habits that minimize the need to open folders and files in order to see what’s on the tape.
BRU PE – Proprietary, with Lots of Features
If you’re already making an appreciable investment in LTO gear, you might consider buying third-party archival software that doesn’t use the LTFS format altogether. The application I used for nearly 7 years is called BRU Producers’ Edition from TOLIS Group ($499 for the Mac, with a Windows version on the way and other BRU tools available for Unix, Linux, Solaris, and Irix systems). A free 30-day trial version can restore BRU tapes indefinitely, so anyone who just needs to restore data can get into the BRU world at no cost.
BRU PE is easy. You can drag and drop files and folder’s into its QuickArchive window, and then click the Start Archive to begin writing to tape.
BRU stores the tape’s directory in its own catalog files, which are always available and searchable, independent of the tape. You could browse endless folders and files in a BRU backup and the tape drive wouldn’t budge until you were ready to restore something. That makes common, everyday operations with BRU considerably faster than plain old LTFS, in my experience.
BRU does some other things that the free LTFS approach can’t. When BRU writes files to tape, it can do a verification pass to confirm that every byte of your data is written to the tape correctly. After several years of using BRU, I can’t remember encountering a single verification error, but since I archive material that I can’t afford to lose, verification is an important safety measure that protects from undetected glitches with my hardware.
BRU also does tape spanning, which lets it automatically write a large archive across multiple tapes. When BRU runs out of room on one tape, it just prompts you for another tape, and then keeps track of what’s on what tape. With standard LTFS, you have to manually organize your files so everything fits on a given tape, which can become a big pain if you’re dealing with large files or camera footage folders that you can’t break up willy-nilly.
There are plenty of other frills too: BRU has custom features for smoothly backing up editing libraries from Final Cut Pro X and Premiere. It can also back up only the files that are new from existing archives, creating a kind of versioning system. In the incredibly rare event that its main catalog becomes damaged or corrupt, BRU can rebuild the catalog by reading your individual tapes, and quickly gathering the catalog and tape information without having to re-read the entire archive on each tape. It has also added a ton of helpful metadata fields to its tape archival database, many of which are custom-designed for TV and movie studios that use BRU regularly for archiving. And it can compile all of those metadata fields into one heck of a dense QR code, which you can then print on the outside of a tape cartridge and read with a phone app without ever putting the tape in a drive.
BRU has a lot of custom metadata fields specifically for media businesses. You can automatically populate fields like these from pre-set database files.
If there’s a downside to BRU, it’s that it records your data in a format that only BRU can recognize, which may not sound very safe for archiving data over the long term. But in practice, it doesn’t seem like much of an issue: the BRU engine has been around since 1985, and can still recover data on tape formats from way back then. BRU is also deeply entrenched in many organizations, and Tolis Group has also placed the BRU source code with long-term clients and organizations like NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which runs the Grammy Awards) so should Tolis ever go under, it’s likely that BRU itself will survive.
More Advanced LTFS Solutions
Apart from BRU and HPE’s free LTFS software, there’s also a newer set of applications that use open-source LTFS as their tape format, but also add extra functionality. Imagine Products’ PreRoll Post ($499) is a good example: for instance, it can perform a kind of tape spanning like BRU can, and it also remembers what you stored on each tape, so it acts as a searchable tape database that lets you find the tape you need without mounting a tape in the drive or dealing with that spinning beach ball behavior I mentioned earlier. And PreRoll Post can work with other apps from Imagine such as PageMill to create and catalog thumbnail previews of media files in its database, making it even easier to find a particular clip you might be looking for.
I haven’t had a chance to use PreRoll Post myself, but will do so in the next couple of months, and report how it all goes.
Summing It Up
Regardless of your software choice, HPE’s Ultrium 15000 LTO-7 hardware is a great foundation for bullet-proof archiving. The drive’s 6TB native tape capacity can keep up with the 4K/5K+ footage that most cameras are shooting these days, and you can expect those tapes to be readable by the next two generations of LTO products, carrying you well into the next decade before even thinking of any kind of migration strategy.
Finally, if the Ultrium 15000 is anything like the last two HP LTO drives I’ve owned (LTO 4 and LTO 6 models), I’m expecting years of reliable, pain-free operation.
- Industrial-strength tape drive with 3-year warranty
- Massive 6TB tape capacity
- Way faster than conventional hard drives (reads/writes around 290MB/s)
- Simple operation
- Can work with any Thunderbolt Mac with middleman hardware
- Lots of options for compatible software
- The Ultrium + Thunderbolt bridge is an expensive proposition for low-volume archiving
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