VXA-2 Tape Drive Firewire, by Exabyte
Posted: 28-Nov-2004

3 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Exabyte Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Bill Catambay Class: HARDWARE

Overview
The VXA-2 FireWire drive is a server strength tape drive for performing important data backups. It handles some of the largest projects quickly and conveniently, storing up to 160 GB on a single tape at a 6 MB per second maximum sustained transfer rate. The VXA-2 FireWire kit includes everything you need to be up and running in minutes, including recording and cleaning tapes, cables, and Dantz Retrospect software for Windows and Macintosh systems. The VXA-2 is built around the second-generation VXA packet technology and includes a hot-swappable FireWire/IEEE 1394 interface. It uses VXA X tape cartridges that offers the scalability of three different cartridge capacities, compatibility with the next generation drive, and the ability to reliably restore data even under the most extreme conditions.

VXA X Tapes are available in 20/40GB (native/compressed), 40/80 GB and 80/160 GB capacities for the same VXA-2 drive, providing users the flexibility to choose the capacity that best meets their current storage and budget needs, with the ability to add capacity on demand simply by using higher capacity VXA Tapes. This tape drive system allows users to easily step up to enterprise-class backup and restore technology.

NOTE: While tape drives are the most prevalent backup method currently used by enterprise and small businesses, it should be noted that tape drives are not generally a cost effective solution for the home user. If you need to perform daily backups in a business environment, or even a home environment where your data is highly valued, the cost is well worth it. The typical home user, however, does not usually need all the bells and whistles provided by tape backup and would be paying for features they would not use.


Features

  • 160 GB capacity
  • 12 MB/sec transfer rate
  • 4x more capacity than DDS-4

Price
The VXA-2 Tape Drive Firewire has a retail price of $1693, but I've found "street" prices as low as $900. The 20/40 GB tape runs for $16 each, the 40/80 GB tape runs for $32, and the 80/160 GB tape goes for $85 (that's 53 cents a gigabyte for compressed backup data). Shopping around for similar tape drive systems, I've found that the price for the VXA-2 is average.

Installation
Unlike hooking up an external firewire hard drive, getting up and running with a tape drive is not quite as straight forward. With a hard drive, you plug it in, and the volume automatically mounts on your desktop. When I hooked up the VXA-2 to my G4 system, nothing showed up on my desktop. So began my setup adventure.

The VXA-2 comes with Dantz Retrospect software, so I tried to see if I could do a backup, but my attempt failed. It reported that it could not find any tape media (even though I had put a tape in the drive). I needed to upgrade the firmware in order to get the drive recognized.

Updating the firmware was no simple task. Under OS X, there is a "vxaTool" utility, but double-clicking the utility opens up a Terminal window, displays a bunch of stuff, and then closes. In other words, this needs to be run from an interactive UNIX session. Hence, the only way to configure the drive on OS X is to startup a Terminal window to get to OS X's UNIX environment, and from there, you need to run the vxaTool application. This also requires entering the full path to wherever the tool may be located (in my case, it was ~/desktop/VXA-2 Stuff/macosx/vxaTool). Unfortunately, this was as far as I got with OS X, because running the tool requires knowing some "magic" device number, and there was no clues given as to what that would be.

I contacted support, and they asked me to run the OS 9 version of the tool, named VXATool. I tried running it from Classic environment under OS X, but it froze every time. My machine is still OS 9 bootable, so I booted up under OS 9 and tried it again, and this time it worked.

As soon as I ran the tool, it detected the VXA-2 device, and returned a value of 3 for the device. The tool accepts commands in the format <device> <action> <options>. For upgrading the firmware, first I downloaded the latest firmware patch, and then I entered the following command in the vxatool application:

3 firmware V12105.HEX

The firmware successfully update, and a subsequent test with Retrospect now shows that my Mac recognizes the drive.

As a follow-up, now that I knew the drive number, I tried to go back into the OS X UNIX version of the tool, but even using the drive value of 3, the tool continued to report that the "device selected is not a tape drive". For someone who has a newer Mac that only boots on OS X, I don't know how you will be able to run the tool.

In Use
Before I tried some backup tests, I played a little more with the OS 9 tool. One of the commands I experimented with was "3 erase tape" which erases the tape. The first time I did this, I had forgotton to push the tape in, and instead of reporting an error that there was no tape inserted, the tool actually responded with a completion message. Also, if you just inserted the tape, but that tape has not yet loaded, and try the command, again it returns a completion message as if it did erase the tape, but in reality, it did not. The tool needs to report an error so that it is clear that the tape has not yet been erased.

For those new to tape drive backup systems, the first thing that might catch you off guard is that you cannot access the tape drives without special software (such as Dantz Retrospect). It isn't like a Zip drive where you can pop in a cartridge and instantly see the volume mount on your desktop. There is no Finder access to the Exabyte tapes, so once you get used to that idea, you can rely on Retrospect for all of your storage and recovery needs.

The VXA-2 tape drive is a very sturdy drive. It measures 11" x 9" x 3 1/2", so it tooks up a little more room that your average optical drive, twice as much room as my external firewire drive. I liked the design of the case, with the semi-transparent white shell, the dark blue fron cover, and eight rubber feet to allow you to place it flat or up on its side. The front of the unit has LEDs for power, tape indicator, and activity (forward and backward arrows). It has a power switch on the back, along with the AC port that the power cord connects to, and a firewire port that you use to connect it with your Mac. It includes another port that is used for PCs or some other non-Mac device as well.

I ran some tests with the unit under OS X. Yes, after you upgrade the firmware on OS 9, you can then go back to OS X and use Retrospect to perform backups. In all my tests, the drive performed very well. It is apparent that the drive has a stable and reliable design. It's simply amazing how much data you can get into those little tape cartridges. The tape that shipped with the unit is 80/160 GB. The 160 GB represents how much data you could backup with compression turned on. I had compression turned off in my tests, which allowed me to backup 80 GB of data. Note that the compression indicated on the drive is different than Retrospect's compression. In other words, even with compression on the drive turned off, you can still use Retrospect's software compression to store as much as possible onto that 80 GB of space.

During my tests, I discovered that the drive is not only reliably, but it pretty darn fast for tape backups as well. Using a sample backup size of 18GB, the VXA-2 backed up at around 250 MB/min, and verified at 125 MB/min. It certainly doesn't shake a stick at the speed for backing up to a firewire hard drive, but for tape backups, this is pretty decent.

According to a white paper by the Data Mobility Group, this drive and the Exabyte tapes have undergone some extreme testing that goes far beyond what I did. For instance, in one case, they dropped the tape into a pot of coffee, let it sit there for 5 minutes, rinsed it off, dried it on top of a radiator, and was still able to retrieve all of the data off of the tape. In another test, a tape was dunked in coffee, placed in a pot of boiling water, and then placed in a bag of water that was placed in a freezer. The following day the tape was defrosted and dried, and they were still able to restore all the data from the tape. That is pretty darn impressive.

The secret is not just in the industrial strength tapes, but more in the recording techniques of the VXA-2 drive. Conventional drives write data on a long single track, and when a tape becomes stretched or worn, the distorted alignment can result in read errors and failed operations. Exabyte uses a new technique called Discrete Packet Format that writes data on a tape in small packets, and each packet has its own unique address. Each packet is read by each of the four heads in the VXA-2 drive, written to a buffer and assembled in proper sequences using the unique addresses. This technique is known as "OverScan Operation" and significantly reduces read errors.

In addition the the reliable data transfer technology, the VXA-2 was designed to provide a rugged and durable drive system, which is why it's a little bigger than other tape drives. This design also leads to a greater cooling need, which explains the noise of the drive. This is not your whisper quiet add-on component. When the drive is on, even if it's inactive, the fan noise makes the drive sound like a small air conditioning unit. This is appropriate for a server room, but it may be distracting in a typical desktop area. The good news is that there is a power button, so you can simply turn off the unit when it's not in use. There is no power bridge between the VXA-2 drive and your Mac, so unlike most external firewire devices, when you turn off your Mac, the VXA-2 drive stays on (again requiring the use of the power button to manually turn off the unit).

Summary
The Exabyte VXA-2 tape drive is a versatile and powerful backup device that can be used directly with your Mac system via a firewire connection. The drive itself is stylish in design, yet rugged and durable. The Exabyte tapes support up to 80 GB per tape of uncompressed data storage, and 160 GB per tape of compressed data storage. The combination of these tapes with the VXA-2 tape drive provide one of the best and most reliable systems for data storage and recovery.

While the tape and storage technology is quite advanced, there is still much room for improvement in terms of integrating this drive with a Mac environment. The OS 9 software tool for configuring the drive is not user-friendly, and the OS X tool does not work. Once the device is configured, however, you can use the included and user-friendly Retrospect software for performing all your backup needs. The drive is quite noisy when it is on, and does not power down when you power down your Mac.

This is a perfect backup system for a server room or for a home user that has critical backup needs. For the typical home user, the price, noise, and setup effort may be more than you bargained for.

Pros

  • Highly reliable backup utilizing VXA packet technology
  • Unit is sturdy and well engineered
  • Includes Dantz Retrospect backup software
  • Fast backups
  • Supports variety of tape sizes, including 80/160 GB tapes

Cons

  • VXA Tool has a non-intuitive GUI (doesn't work on OS X)
  • Unable to mount a tape for Finder read/write operations
  • Noisy, and does not power off with Mac
  • Expensive

Overall Rating

For a server solution, the VXA-2 easily earns a 4 1/2 out of 5 mice rating for price and performance, but the issues related to noise and software bring that rating down when using it with a Mac system: 3 1/2 out of 5 Mice