The First Desktop LTO-6 Drive Is a Safe, Convenient, Cost-Effective Archival Solution

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for StudioDaily about my experiences using LTO-4 tape to archive important footage and projects. At the time, it felt like using LTO tape put me in a minority. Apart from large organizations like studios and post houses, I rarely ran across anyone using LTO. The majority were either still shooting on tape and keeping their tapes as backups, or they were using hard drives to store material, and keeping their fingers crossed that the drives wouldn’t fail after sitting on a shelf for a while.

Now, in 2013, I’m back to talk about a big development on the LTO front — HP’s release of the first desktop LTO-6 tape drive, the StoreEver Ultrium 6250  — and it feels like LTO is definitely more mainstream. First of all, most people are shooting on solid-state, so the crutch of putting a permanent camera master on a shelf is no longer an option. Secondly, LTO prices have dropped, the tools have improved, and the good word has spread. When I visit bigger sets, I’ll often see a DIT with a small LTO drive on their cart, speedily backing up footage as it’s shot to a palm-sized tape cartridge.

At any rate, this review focuses on HP’s new 6250 drive, which is the first desktop LTO-6 drive to hit the market. Other drives are following from Quantum, Cache-A, Dell, and so on, but HP’s is the first available, and it’s also one of the more affordable, which makes it a great option if you’re thinking of getting into LTO, or upgrading your older LTO hardware. Here are some impressions after using the drive on a regular basis for the last month or so….

The 6250 Hardware
Like any LTO-6 drive, the 6250 adheres to the specs of the LTO-6 format, which means it can store 2.5 TB of raw data on an LTO-6 tape cartridge, and can read/write that data up to 160 MB/s second. That’s a real-world rate, by the way, and not a theoretical one that no one ever sees. And that rate makes the 6250 as fast or faster than most spinning hard drives connected using a high-speed SATA or USB 3 or Thunderbolt interface, and significantly faster than a drive using an ancient USB 2 or FireWire 800 connection (30-80 MB/s). LTO-6 tapes are rated to last for 20-30 years. Finally, the drive can read LTO tapes from two generations back (LTO-4 and LTO-5), and it can write to LTO-5 tapes. Speaking of tapes, a single LTO-6 tape costs about $70-$110, but historically, prices LTO tape prices tend to drop quick to around $35).

The drive itself has a small footprint. It weights about 17 pounds, and measures about 12” deep, 8.5” wide and about 3” high. That makes it small enough to fit under my Apple Cinema 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 PC computer case, or as a 1U rack-mount kit.

You’ll need a MiniSAS port to connect the drive to your computer (either a 3 or 6 Gb/s port works). Few computers have MiniSAS built-in, so that means getting some sort of expansion device to add the port to your machine. For desktops, you can find cards from the likes of Atto or Highpoint. Personally, I can vouch for Atto’s ExpressSAS H680 card, which sells for about $325. If you already have a MiniSAS RAID setup, you might also be able to plug the 6250 into your existing RAID card. For laptops with Thunderbolt, you can use an 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 RAID functions too.

Once you’re connected, you can turn on the 6250 at any time, and within 10-15 seconds, it’s ready to work. The easiest and most affordable way to archive material is to format an LTO-6 tape as an “LTFS” volume (Linear Tape File System). LTFS is a new-ish, open source format that lets you mount your tape on your Mac, Windows or Linux desktop, and read/write to it like a hard drive or flash drive. Every LTO manufacturer (IBM, Quantum, Cache-A, etc) supports LTFS, which means you can take an LTFS tape created on one set of gear and read/write to it on another set of gear. 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.

LTFS Archiving
To get started with LTFS, you need to download and install drivers and an app from HP. You can download them all in one package right here from HP’s web site (be 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 HP’s app to mount the tape, where it becomes available as a volume in the Mac’s Finder, Windows’ Explorer, etc. Now 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. One bonus: I noticed the 6250 is much quieter than my old HP LTO-4 drive when it’s writing/reading tape. The old Ultrium 1840 sounded like a passenger jet at times, while the 6250 is dialed down a few notches. It’s still noticeable and not ideal for concentration, but the improvement is still noticeable. Also, when the 6250 is idle, its low-pitched fan is pretty easy to ignore.

At any rate, LTFS 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 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 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 (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 40 seconds. 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. 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.

Third-Party Archival Apps
In fact, 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. There are a number of archiving apps out there, but the one I know and use is called BRU Producers’ Edition from Tolis Group ($499 for the Mac, with other BRU tools available for Unix, Linux, Solaris, Irix and Windows systems. A free trial version can restore BRU tapes indefinitely).

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.

BRU does some other things that an LTFS approach can’t. When it writes files to tape, it can do a verification pass to confirm that every byte of your data was written to the tape correctly. After more than 3 years of using BRU, I’ve never had the verification pass report a problem. On the other hand, since I archive material that I can’t afford to lose, verification is a safety measure that protects from unforeseen glitches with my LTO drive.

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 LTFS, you have to manually organize your files so everything fits on a given tape.

Of course, if there’s a downside to BRU, it’s that it records your data to the tape in a format that only BRU can recognize. That proprietary approach may not sound very safe for archiving data over the long term, but the BRU engine has been around since 1985, and can still recover data on tape formats from back then. 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.

It’s BRU’s convenience and reliability that has kept me using it for the last few years, 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 own computer. Regardless of your choice, the Ultrium 6250 hardware is a great foundation for bullet-proof archiving. With its giant tape capacity, speed and trouble-free operation, I find myself archiving everything as soon as I shoot it, which is the whole point. 

Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based cameraman who shoots for networks such as the BBC, PBS, CBS and BET. For more info, visit