Archiving Video With HP's New LTO-6 Ultrium 6250 Tape Drive
LTO tape has become a popular, smart option for backing up and archiving video. An LTO tape is far less likely to fail than a mechanical hard drive sitting on your shelf for months or years. Tape is cheaper than a hard drive at the same capacity. And, tape is often faster at reading/writing data than a hard drive. So what's not to like?
I've been using LTO since 2009, when I started shooting on P2 cards and wanted a bullet-proof way to save client footage. At the time, the LTO format was in its 4th iteration (LTO-4), which was categorized by tapes that could store about 800GB of raw data, and read/write up to 120MB/s. Since '09, there's been an LTO-5 iteration (1.5 TB capacity with 140MB/s data rate), and now, just in the last couple of months, HP has released the industry's first desktop LTO-6 drive, the StoreEver Ultrium 6250
. The 6250 can store 2.5 TB of raw data per tape, hit data rates of 160MB/s, with tape longevity up to 30 years
I've had the 6250 on my desktop for about a month, and can't recommend it enough. With a street price of around $3200, it's relatively affordable for those who produce a lot of footage. And with its giant tape capacity, high speed and trouble-free operation, I find myself archiving everything as soon as I shoot it, which is the whole point.
The following are a bunch of impressions about the drive, and how Mac users can incorporate it into their workflow. Much of this applies to Windows and Linux users as well, but my personal experience is on a Mac, so that's what I'll focus on.
THE HARDWARE - HP's StoreEver Ultrium 6250
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- The drive itself weights 17 pounds, and measures about 12" deep, 8.5" wide and about 3" high. That means it's small enough to fit right under my Apple Cinema Display, so it takes no appreciable real estate on my desk. You can also buy the drive as an internal unit that installs in a computer case, or as a 1U rack-mount kit.
- The drive uses a single 6 Gb/s MiniSAS port, so you'll have to figure out how to add that port to your computer before getting started. If your machine has expansion card slots (like my 2009 Mac Pro), you can buy a small card with multiple MiniSAS ports from companies like ATTO or Highpoint. My own experience is with ATTO, so I recommend ATTO's ExpressSAS H680 card, which gives you two ports for a street price of around $325. The ATTO H680 is a 6Gb/s card, but even an older 3Gb/s card will work fine, because the 6250's data rate falls within a 3Gb/s capacity. Personally, I use an older ATTO R380 RAID card in my Mac Pro to connect to the Ultrium 6250. The R380 (now discontinued and replaced by an R680) also has two MiniSAS ports -one port goes to my 8-drive DX800 enclosure from Sonnet, and the other port goes to my LTO drive. ATTO's raid cards are a great way to get both RAID and LTO features while only taking up one card slot on the Mac Pro. The RAID runs a little slower than its max speed (since it's only using one MiniSAS connector, instead of two), but is still plenty fast.
- If you have a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac, you have a couple of ways to work with the 6250. Option #1 is to buy a Thunderbolt expansion chassis like the Sonnet Echo or the Magma ExpressBox, and then install a MiniSAS card inside of that. Another option is to buy ATTO's ThunderLink SH 1068, which is a dedicated Thunderbolt box with two MiniSAS connections, or the ATTO ThunderStream SC 3808D, which also gives you two MiniSAS ports but has world-class RAID functionality too. These ATTO Thunderbolt boxes aren't exactly cheap, but they're still cheaper than buying an expansion card and a Thunderbolt chassis to stick it in.
THE TAPE STOCK
- You can turn on the 6250 at any time, and within 10-15 seconds, it's ready to work. When it's idle, you can hear a low-pitched fan whirling around inside its case, but the fan noise is minimal, and I forget about it very quickly. The noise is more noticeable when the 6250 is reading and writing to a tape, but I'd still call it unobtrusive (especially compared to my old HP 1840 LTO-4 tape drive, which could be mistaken for a passenger jet). When the drive is rewinding or fast forwarding to a new position on the tape, it will definitely break your concentration, but that happens infrequently. In other words, the drive can live on a creative's desk, no problem.
- The 6250, like other LTO-6 drives coming down the pike, can read/write LTO-5 tapes, and read from LTO-4 tapes (every LTO format has been compatible with the two generations that came before it). When working with previous-gen LTO, the 6250 reads/writes at whatever speeds are supported by that older format, so that means up to 120MB/s on LTO-4, and 140MB/s on LTO-5. This backwards compatibility is helpful when you need to refer to old archives, but it also lets you control costs since LTO-4 and -5 tape costs much less than LTO-6 stock (see below). For instance, you could give clients their project's footage on an LTO-5 tape at a cost of $35, instead of $70 or more for LTO-6.
- In case you're thinking of waiting for an LTO drive that works with a more common interface like USB3 or Thunderbolt: I asked HP about that, and they said they were "continuing to investigate a variety of solution opportunities that allow for USB3/Thunderbolt connectivity to our drives in the future." Personally, I wouldn't hold my breath. HP doesn't support Thunderbolt on any of its computers, and I wonder if something like a tape drive could work well on a consumer port like USB3, where a high data rate can't be guaranteed. But we'll see.
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- A single LTO-6 tape, according to some Google research, costs about $70-$110, depending on the vendor (Tolis Group has the lowest price I've found, at http://www.tolisgroup.com). That sounds expensive for a single tape, but remember the massive 2.5TB capacity you're getting. I checked out Macsales.com and couldn't find any 2TB drives in that price range. Better yet, LTO-6 tape prices are bound to drop significantly, just as LTO-4 and LTO-5 prices have. LTO-5 prices started high, but dropped to around $35 within a year. Assuming LTO-6 does the same thing, tape stock will beat hard drive prices dramatically, and earn back the cost of your $3200 drive after about 40-50 tapes.
TWO DIFFERENT WAYS TO WORK WITH THE DRIVE
- You can re-write over an LTO tape about 100,000 times, which makes it great for making successive backups of on-going projects (besides raw camera footage, I often back up the Events folders for various Final Cut Pro X projects). That reusability is welcome, but it also means you could accidentally erase important content, which obviously undermines the idea of long-term archived media. To eliminate all risk of overwriting, you can use LTO-6 WORM (Write Once Read Many) tape, which can only write over a tape one time. Unfortunately, WORM tape is pricey at about $160 a tape.
- Some tape stock is less abrasive on your drive's tape head, especially when you're writing to a brand new tape. At this point, HP and Fujifilm make tape that's considerably less abrasive than media from other manufacturers (Sony, Maxell, etc.).
Once you've got the 6250 connected to your Mac, I recommend choosing one of two different ways to work with it. Option #1 is to pay hundreds of dollars to buy archival software designed for LTO drives. This software, called BRU Producer's Edition from Tolis Group
, records your data to the tape in a proprietary format that only BRU can recognize. Option #2 is to use free tools/drivers from HP to format your tape as an LTFS volume (Linear Tape File System), which is a new-ish, open source format that lets you mount your tape in the Finder (or Windows desktop, or a Linux file system), and read/write to it like a hard drive or flash drive.
You're probably thinking that option #2 sounds pretty good, since it's free, and non-proprietary. That's what I thought, too. But in practice, I found that LTFS isn't quite as convenient as it first sounds, while BRU actually makes archiving easier, and more fool-proof. You'll make up your own mind, but here are some thoughts about each approach that led to my conclusion...
OPTION #1: BRU Producer's Edition 3.0 ($499)
- There are other applications that do archiving on the Mac, but I don't think any of them have the bullet-proof reputation for reliability that BRU has. I've personally used BRU for more than 3 years, archiving and retrieving about 25 LTO-4 tapes, and NEVER had a problem recovering data. I started with BRU because of strong word-of-mouth reports from other LTO users. Also, the BRU format has been around since 1985, and BRU PE can still read data recorded by the many tape formats it's supported over the years (provided you can find the antique hardware to work with those tapes). A BRU engine also runs on Linux, Unix, Solaris, and Irix operating systems. There's also a Server product that handles backups over a network, and includes a Windows client. That kind of depth and longevity gave me confidence in BRU.
- BRU is fairly easy to use. I say fairly because it's still worth reading its QuickStart manual before getting started. But once you know the basics, the workflow is quick and painless. Just launch BRU, and with a tape in the drive, you can use BRU's QuickArchive mode to literally drag and drop files/folders from the Finder into BRU (BRU has an Advanced mode, but I've never bothered with it because QuickArchive is so complete). When you're finished dragging your files and folders into the QuickArchive window, you just type in a name for that entire archive (for instance, "Pete Townsend Interview" or "Criminal Minds B-roll, January 2013"), and optionally can add up to four fields of text metadata for the archive. Then, click BRU's Start Archive button. With that, BRU fires up your drive, and begins writing files to the tape, reporting its progress on each file as it goes.
- The speed of the archive can depend on how many files and folders you have. Giant ProRes 422 HQ files will likely archive faster than Canon C300 folders, which are filled with lots of small files/folders for audio, metadata, etc. Still, archive speeds under BRU and my 6250 drive were impressive. I regularly hit 140MB/s archiving Canon C300 footage, and Tolis Group says that they've hit speeds as high as 190MB/s (higher than HP's own data rate spec of 160MB/s). For comparison's sake, the fastest performance I got out of my LTO-4 drive was 90MB/s.
- BRU can do a verification pass after it writes your archive to tape, making sure every byte written matches the byte coming from your hard drive or wherever the original data resides. The bad news is that this almost doubles your archive time, so a 140MB/s data rate on the initial write effectively becomes about 70MB/s by the time verification is finished. Personally, I've used verification for every archive I've ever done, and yet BRU has never encountered an error during the process. It makes you wonder if verification is really necessary, but without it, you'd be vulnerable to a mechanical tape drive mechanism malfunctioning, so I highly recommend you keep it on.
- With BRU, every tape you record to gets a name. When you start recording to a blank tape, BRU prompts you for a tape name ("Client Video" or "Finished Edits", or whatever). But a nice feature of BRU is that when it fills up a tape during an archive, it prompts you to insert a fresh tape, and simply names the tape as a new volume under the original tape's name ("Client Video, Tape 2"). You wind up with tape sets made up of multiple tapes, which makes things easy to manage. It also means you never have to worry whether your data will fit on a given tape, as long as you have a spare tape around.
OPTION #2: LTFS (FREE)
- When you want to recover files you've already archived, just click BRU's Restore button, and you'll see a list of every tape you've archived, organized by sets. Click an individual tape and you'll see all the archives in it (again, "Pete Townsend Interview", or "Criminal Minds B-Roll, January 2013"). And if you click an individual archive, you'll see all the files and folders that make it up. All of this file data is kept in BRU's catalog file, so there's no need to insert a tape to see what's on it. You can also search for text strings in your catalog, making it easy to find the tape you need. Just drag and file/folders into you do find an archive to restore (or any individual file or folder within an archive), BRU will prompt you for the right tape in your set, and then write the files from your tape to any destination drive. Again, expect reads from the tape to be about as fast as writes.
- You can download a fully-featured, 30-day trial of BRU PE from the BRU product page. A nice feature of the trial is that it drops the ability to archive after 30 days, but still lets you restore anything, forever more. That means you can give clients an archive of their material, and they have a zero-cost way of recovering it. Tip: use BRU PE's BRUsetta Stone feature to export a selection of your archive catalog to a CD/DVD, along with a DMG image of the BRU PE app. Give that disk to your client along with their tape, and they've got everything they need to restore.
- Another great feature of BRU is the tech support that goes with it (you get 30 days phone support with your basic license, or can pay $99 more to extend support to 13 full months, which also includes any major upgrades). Tolis Group has a dedicated phone support line, which I've called multiple times over the years with questions, or for help upgrading to new versions. There are no phone trees, no hold times, no "please leave a message". From my experience, an expert always picks up the phone during business hours, and takes care of you.
- One more thing about BRU's longevity: while the BRU engine has existed since 1985, and Tolis Group has been around for more than 10 years, there's always the fear that Tolis may go out of business, along with future support for your BRU-created tapes. To address this, Tolis has placed BRU's source code with a number of long-time clients and media industry groups--for instance, the code is currently with NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which runs the Grammy Awards), and the company is working to place BRU code with SMPTE as well. In other words, BRU can always rise from the ashes.
- Finally, Tolis Group makes it easy to get started with LTO by selling BRU with hardware bundles including the Ultrium 6250 drive and MiniSAS expansion cards. If you buy a bundle from Tolis, you get BRU at a discount.
- Again, you can avoid the considerable cost of an application like BRU if you format your tapes in the open-source, LTFS format. You can mount LTFS tapes using the Mac's Finder, just as you mount a hard drive or thumbdrive. And those tapes can be shared with any Mac, Windows or Linux users who also has LTFS installed on their system, regardless of what kind of LTO drive they own (all LTO5 and LTO6 drives can work with LTFS). That's one big reason why LTFS is used as data transport in the movie industry, where a post house dumps a bunch of footage onto a tape, and sends it over to an effects house. Since LTFS is free and well-supported, all of these companies can easily share the same data, regardless of what gear and operating system they're using.
- To use LTFS with your Ultrium 6250, you need to install drivers and an app from HP. You can download them all in one package right here from HP's web site. Make sure to look at the Read Me file included, because you need to install the software in a particular order.
- Once you've got HP's software installed, you can use HP's StoreOpen app to format and then mount your LTFS tape. 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 the HP app to mount the tape, where it becomes available as a volume in the Finder. Note: You might not see it under a Finder window's DEVICES column initially. If not, use the Finder to choose your entire computer as the volume, and then look for the mounted tape inside that volume. Choose Preferences under the Finder menu and make sure all the options under DEVICES are checked as well.
- Now that you've mounted the tape in the Finder, you can drag files to it/from it like you would any other volume. The drive begins working right away, there's no "BURN" option like a data CD or DVD.
- All this sounds really convenient, and it is until a certain point. You reach that point when you start to interact with the tape's files and folders as you do 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). I found 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 constantly 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 about 45 seconds of tape scanning before I could see the folder's contents (and the Finder displaying a spinning beachball for much of that time). At some point, I switched from the Finder's List view to Column view, and the tape again scanned for about 40 seconds just so it could reference the file that was selected, and display a thumbnail of the video. Even closing a folder can cause the tape drive to move to another place on the tape, tying up the Finder with a beachball. You can minimize some of this by developing some disciplined habits when working with LTFS. On the other hand, this is something that an app like BRU avoids altogether, because it stores the tape's directory in its own catalog files, which are always available, 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.
- LTFS doesn't support Verification when it's writing/reading data from tape. That's another reason why, personally, I feel more comfortable using an application like BRU for archiving material that I absolutely, positively don't want to lose.
- LTFS doesn't support tape spanning, which is the ability to automatically write a large archive across multiple tapes. That's not a huge deal, but it means having to put a little more time/effort into managing your archives. With BRU, you tell it what you want to archive, and it tells you when to insert a new tape.
Personally, I use my Ultrium 6250 drive with the fast, efficient BRU, but using LTFS is a reasonable option as well, especially if your priority is cost or integrating your LTO archiving/backups into workflows that go beyond your computer, on your desk.
Regardless, the HP 6250 drive is a great foundation for archiving. Its 2.5TB capacity handles plenty of high bit-rate video. It's fast enough to archive as soon as you get new material, instead of putting things off. It works on all platforms. It's simple, has so far been trouble-free, and has a solid 3-year warranty. And it's the least expensive LTO-6 drive you'll find.
I had a great experience with my LTO-4 drive (the HP 1840) for almost four years. I think there's a good chance I'll be using the new 6250 even longer.
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based cameraman who shoots for networks such as the BBC, PBS, CBS and BET. For more info, go to http://www.losangelescameraman.com
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