HP to look at DVD jukeboxes

HP to look at DVD jukeboxes

Despite fears about the format's fragility in mechanical environments, HP is to begin work on a jukebox able to handle CD-size media, such as DVDs. Gerard Knapp reports from the company's annual Asia Pacific conference.

Hewlett-Packard has managed to stay at the forefront of the extended storage solutions market, without offering a jukebox able to handle CD-size media, one of the most popular storage devices on the market.

However, that may soon change, as the company will soon begin research into producing a new jukebox based on the emerging DVD format.

"There would not be a market requirement until 2000 for the DVD-RW jukebox"

Gil Merme, general manager of HP's Storage Systems Division, told a press briefing at the company's annual Asia Pacific conference of its Information Storage Group held in Bali late last year, that by April this year the company will start investigations into a DVD jukebox.

Given the similarities in the media size (and fragility) of both DVD and CD-ROM, it is possible that HP could use the same robotics to enter the CD-ROM jukebox, well before the DVD format gains acceptance.

But Merme said that HP was concentrating its efforts on the DVD format and did not plan to enter the CD-ROM jukebox market. In 1994-95, HP spent considerable time and money developing a CD-ROM jukebox, but decided against marketing the product.

HP believed that the unprotected CDs were too fragile for jukebox robotics and preferred to support the higher capacity magneto-optical (MO) format.

But at the same time, there has been considerable growth in the CD jukebox market. End users are find ing new levels of flexibility from the storage devices due to the development of packet-writing software, which allows for multi-session writing to disc. Previously, CDs had to be written in one continuous session, which reduced the formatÕs ability to cope with high-end applications.

Merme said "there would not be a market requirement until 2000 for the DVD-RW jukebox". By offering 3GB per disc, the DVD format will almost rival the more expensive MO format.

In the interim, HP remains committed to the MO jukebox market, which has progressed in capacity from 1.3GB per disk to 2.6GB, with the next upgrade in capacity to 5.2GB scheduled for April this year. The capacity of the format is planned to progress again to 10.4GB within the next two to three years, providing a predictable and backwards compatible upgrade path for end users.

But at the same time, HP keeps a keen interest in the CD format. Late last year it released a series of stand-alone CD-rewritable drives, which are expected to find wide application at the SOHO level. As mentioned previously, new packet writing software now allows the user to treat the 650MB rewritable CD as a giant floppy disk.

Spectacular growth

The DVD (digital versatile disc) is the latest evolution of the CD format and promises to record spectacular market growth in the next few years. This is despite a format war among leading electronics manufacturers, which will undoubtably lead to confusion and hesitancy within the market.

On one side, there is the DVD-RW format, which is supported by HP and CD format developers Sony and Philips. The DVD-RW disc looks virtually indistinguishable from a regular CD-ROM.

The aim of HP, Sony and Philips is to produce a multi-read DVD-RW drive that can record a blank DVD disc and replay anything from music CDs through to CD-ROM, CD-RW and DVD-ROM video.

Meanwhile, companies such as Matsushita, Hitachi and Toshiba are promoting the somewhat incompatible DVD-RAM format. This is similar to the CD format but differs in several key areas. The DVD-RAM disc is housed in a cartridge, uses a different drive mechanism and data writing technique.

According to Dave Deane, the marketing manager of HP's DVD Organisation, HP has declined to support the DVD-RAM format due to its inherent incompatibility with existing CD media.

Deane said it was theoretically possible to build a DVD-RAM drive which can replay standard CD-ROM disc, but it was made difficult due to the nature of the DVD-RAM media and drive specification. Currently, there are 150 million CD-ROM drives in use and 500 million CD audio players.

Deane expected that by 2000, there will be more DVD-ROM drives sold than CD-ROM.

Tape rolls on

The tape storage market is also beset by format incompatibilities. While there are clear market leaders, the range of formats continues to grow, rather than consolidate.

At the Bali conference, HP outlined it had reached an agreement with IBM and Seagate to establish an open format specification for network storage applications. The idea is to develop a format which is supported by a variety of vendors to assist with data interchange.

However, HP executives were unwilling to reveal any further details at the conference. It would appear that this new specification will be directed at the high-end server market, currently dominated by the half-inch DLT format.

What concerns IT vendors about DLT is that the US company Quantum is the sole manufacturer of DLT tape drives, which HP uses in its high-end tape libraries. According to Andy Buckley, the Asia Pacific market development manager for HP's ISG, Quantum has "declined to join the alliance", an indication that Quantum sees this proposed format as a new rival.

Meanwhile, HP's view of the lower end of the market has been shaken by the release of the NS-8 format, an ongoing development of the low-cost quarter- inch cartridge (QIC) tape format.

Offering 8GB of storage on a single cartridge, and supported by Exabyte, Imation and Tecmar, the NS-8 format is designed to move the QIC format into the mid-range of the market, currently dominated by the 4mm DDS format.

The major difference between QIC and DDS drives is that the former has a stationary record head. Therefore, QIC drives are easier to manufacture, but the media is more expensive.

The DDS drives are based on the helical scan head, which revolves at an angle as the tape passes. This allows for higher data capacities, simultaneous read and write cycles, and allows for cheaper media. Although HP produces a QIC drive, known as the Colorado range, it will not support the NS-8, as it believes "it is not in our customers' interests". Instead, the company will continue to pitch its QIC product at the SOHO market, and maintain the support of the popular DDS format, which now offers 12GB on a single cartridge in uncompressed format. Known as DDS-3, the next generation of DDS drives will double that again, however, HP was unwilling to predict the release date of the DDS-4 drive. Another major advantage of the DDS format is its backwards compatibility, with a DDS-3 drive able to read first generation DDS tapes.

At the DLT format briefing, HP also outlined a plan to offer custom DLT tape libraries.

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