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LTO4 Tape Archiving on the Mac

This Three-Vendor Solution Works Like a Well-Oiled Machine

Just about every new camera system has ditched the tired, old idea of recording to tape. I thank my personal god for that, but not all tape needs to go the way of the Dodo. It turns out that a particular tape format called LTO4 is still the best option for backing up and archiving the footage you've shot on your tapeless camera (and no, you shouldn't archive valuable footage to spare hard drives that sit on a shelf-drives left static for a year or two become unreliable).
 
LTO tape (stands for Linear Tape Open) has been around for many years, and is already used by financial companies and government to keep track of your old banking statements and parking tickets. LTO4 is the newest flavor of LTO, and its benefits are considerable:
  • A single $50 LTO4 tape can store 800GB of uncompressed video-that's 26 whopping hours of 720/24p video from a Panasonic P2 camera, 38 hours of 1080/24p footage from a Sony EX3, or nearly 8 hours of 4K footage from a RED camera.
  • An LTO4 tape lasts about 30 years in normal storage conditions (ie, don't leave it in your trunk indefinitely).
  • Some LTO4 drives can read/write data up to 120MBps-ie, much faster than reading/writing to a conventional SATA hard drive – so incremental backups go in a hurry.
There is, however, a problem with LTO4 tape—and it's not really the cost. In fact, a fast, reliable LTO4 system can be had for under $3,300, which is reasonable for most professionals. LTO's real problem has been the confusing and risky process of finding the right LTO4 drive, the right interface card, and the right backup software, and see them all work reliably together.

That's what this is review is for. After months of research, I've found a Mac-based LTO4 solution that's working great on a single workstation. You can buy it yourself piece-meal, or buy it as a bundle from one company (TOLIS Group, www.tolisgroup.com).

Here's how the various components work together.

The Tape Drive

Many companies make LTO4 drives, but I chose the HP Ultrium 1840, which has a list price of $3,999 (naturally, it can be found at online retailers for much cheaper). The 1840 is a "full-height" external drive that's about 12.5" inches long, 9" wide and 5" tall, and can easily fit on your desktop. It's a speed-demon as far as LTO4 drives go, delivering up to about 120MBps of real-world throughput. And it's got a confidence-inspiring 3-year warranty.

HP sells the 1840 with either an Ultra320 SCSI or SAS interface, but I chose the SAS option because it delivers top-speed through a single cable, without any configuration headaches that I associate with other SCSI formats.

The 1840 is as simple to use as a Fisher-Price toy-the front of the unit sports a Power button, a tape Eject button, and a couple of status LEDs. All you really have to do is gently nudge your LTO tape into the Ultrium, and the drive takes it in.

When the Ultrium is on, you can definitely hear its fan; I'd say it's about as noisy than a typical 8-drive RAID, and definitely more noisy than a Mac Pro tower. When the drive is searching the tape, there's also a little robotic whir thrown in for good measure. Given the noise, the 1840 isn't something I want running all the time on my desk. That's okay, though, because I can just turn it on when needed, and my backup software finds it immediately-no need to reboot the computer.

Note: HP also sells a smaller, less expensive "half height" drive called the Ultrium 1760 ($2,749), but I chose the 1840 because its max speed is about 20MBps faster, and it runs about 12 db quieter. If cost is a major concern, though, the 1760 is still a great option.

The Interface Card

The Ultrium drive connects to a computer via a Mini-SAS cable, so I installed an ATTO Technology H380 card ($395) into my Mac Pro to gain two SAS ports.

The H380 is a no-hassle kind of card. You do have to install a driver to use it (unless you're running the new Snow Leopard OS, which comes with drivers built in), but the card runs cool, has no fan, and doesn't interfere with the Mac's ability to sleep. Although the card is designed for an 8x slot, you can install it in a 4x slot if it's just running a single LTO4 drive.

If your Mac is running low on free card slots, ATTO also sells a highly-rated RAID card called the R380 ($1,095), which includes two SAS ports that can drive either a 4 or 8-drive RAID and an LTO4 drive simultaneously, at high speeds. The R380 is a great way to make the most of the Mac Pro's rather paltry 3 spare expansion slots.

One more thing: most LTO4 drives use SAS or SCSI interfaces, but a few drives, such as CacheA's PrimeCache ($7,995), can connect to your computer or network via an everyday Gigabit Ethernet cable. The drawback of an Ethernet connection is that it's only half as fast as SAS, but that may be worth it if you want to archive video from multiple workstations. Since I'm archiving video from a single Mac, though, I opted for a zippy SAS-connected LTO drive.

The Backup Software

The final ingredient in my LTO4 cocktail is backup software called BRU Producer's Edition ($499), from the TOLIS Group. The Mac operating system (Windows, too, for that matter) doesn't work with tape drives natively, so I need BRU to control the HP Ultrium and read/write data to its tape.

BRU is a full-featured backup application, but its beauty is its simple QuickArchive mode, which provides a clean, streamlined interface for writing data to tape. To get started, just drag any files/folders from the Mac's Finder into BRU's Archive window, and then type in a name for your Archive session-for instance, "Wrestling B-Roll". Then just hit BRU's Archive button, and watch it go work writing the data to tape.

Writing goes relatively quickly-again, the Ultrium 1840/ATTO H380 tag-team manages a real-world data rate of about 120 MBps, but BRU also needs time to verify that your data has been accurately written to the tape. The bad news is: the verification pass usually takes as much time as the copy itself. The good news is: the wait is still tolerable. For instance, backing up 243 GB of P2 video took an hour and 4 minutes-not too shabby for ultimate, peace-of-mind security!

To restore an archive session, just click BRU's Restore button, which brings up a new interface that lists all the archived sessions you've created. You can restore a full session or pick and choose files/folders from that session. You can also type in a search string and let BRU show you all the backup tapes you've made that include similar items. When you've selected your data, another button click lets you choose where it will go-most likely, you'll save it your editing RAID or a spare hard drive. Finally, just click BRU's Restore button, and BRU starts reading your tape (reading goes just slightly faster than writing, including verification).

Go beyond BRU's QuickArchive mode and you'll find plenty of advanced features, such as the ability to schedule automatic back-ups for certain times, or to back-up only certain files from certain dates, etc. That's all welcomed, but will probably be overkill for many shooters/editors who will simply connect their latest batch of footage-carrying cards or drives to their Mac, and back up immediately.

There is one potential gotcha when working with BRU, and that's that no other backup software can recognize your BRU-formatted tapes. 10, 15, 20 years down the road, if you want to restore some old tape in your archive, you'll need BRU-compatible software to do it (not to mention a tape drive that reads your LTO4 tapes—future LTO5 and LTO6 drives, which are on the drawing board in labs today, are guaranteed to work with LTO4 tape, but who knows after that.).

Given LTO's long-term orientation, you might wonder if TOLIS Group will be around to sell a version of BRU that works with whatever new-fangled hardware and OS you'll have in the future. There are no guarantees, of course, but TOLIS and BRU have been around since 1985, and it's TOLIS policy to keep data compatible year after year. I definitely felt reassured to learn that today's BRU can still read data files written more than 20 years ago, when BRU ran on Amiga computers and backed up files to floppy disks and prehistoric tape.

TOLIS has also 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 TOLIS is working to place BRU code with SMPTE and the Society of Composers & Lyricists as well. In other words, if something ever happens to TOLIS Group, BRU can still rise from the ashes.

Bringing It All Together

You can build an LTO solution with other tape drives, interface cards and backup software, but a quick check of online support forums shows that some combinations don't work well together. On the other hand, the HP Ultrium 1840, ATTO's H380 card, and TOLIS' BRU Producer's Edition work like a well-oiled machine, so if you want a hassle-free experience, I heartily recommend this trio.

You can assemble the LTO hardware by scouring the net for cheap-o deals (including grey market hardware); if so, you might be able to acquire everything you need for as low as $3,300. A more trouble-free approach would be to consider buying everything in a bundle from TOLIS Group. The 1840 drive, interface card, SAS cable, BRU software, a blank LTO4 tape, a drive cleaning tape, and 12 months of telephone support go for $5,180 (a cheaper bundle based on HP's smaller 1760 LTO drive is $4,015). Opting for the bundle means paying just about list price for everything, but you'll get it from one source, and all the support you need to get your feet wet.

1 Comment

Categories: Business, Creativity, Editing, Technology, Tutorial
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  • Leon

    thnx for writing this down. :) good article.

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