StarWind VTL? What? Yes, And It’s Great!

Disclaimer: I recently attended Storage Field Day 15.  My flights, accommodation and other expenses were paid for by Tech Field Day. There is no requirement for me to blog about any of the content presented and I am not compensated in any way for my time at the event.  Some materials presented were discussed under NDA and don’t form part of my blog posts, but could influence future discussions.

StarWind recently presented at Storage Field Day 15. You can see videos of their presentation here, and download my rough notes from here.


VTL? Say What Now?

Max and Anton from StarWind are my favourites. If I was a professional analyst I wouldn’t have favourites, but I do. Anyone who calls their presentation “From Dusk Till Dawn” is alright in my books. Here’s a shot of Max presenting.


In The Beginning

The concept of sending recovery data to tape is not a new one. After all, tape was often referred to as “backup’s best friend”. Capacity-wise it’s always been cheap compared to disk, and it’s been a (relatively) reliable medium to work with. This was certainly the case in the late 90s when I got my start in IT. Since then, though, disks have come a long way in terms of capacity (and reduced cost). StorageTek introduced Virtual Tape Libraries (VTLs) in the late 90s and a lot of people moved to using disk storage for their backups. Tape still played a big part in this workflow, with a lot of people being excited about disk to disk to tape (D2D2T) architectures in the early 2000s. IT was cool because it was a fast way to do backups (when it worked). StarWind call this the “dusk” of the VTL era.


Disks? Object? The Cloud? Heard Of Them?

According to StarWind though (and I have anecdotal evidence to support this), backup applications (early on) struggled to speak sensibly to disk. Since then, object storage has become much more popular. StarWind also suggested that it’s hard to do file or block to object effectively.

Tape (or a tape-like mechanism) for cold data is still a great option.  No matter how you slice it, tape is still a lot cheaper than disk. At least in terms of raw $/GB. It also offers:

  • Longevity;
  • Can be stored offline; and
  • Streams at a reasonably high bandwidth.

Object storage is a key cloud technology. And object storage can deliver similar behaviour to tape, in that it is:

  • Non-blocking;
  • Capable of big IO; and
  • Doesn’t need random writes.

From StarWind’s perspective, the “dawn” of VTL is back. The combination of cheap disk, mature object storage technology and newer backup software means that VTL can be a compelling option for business that still needs a tape-like workflow. They offer a turnkey appliance, based on NL-SAS. It has 16 drives per appliance (in a 3.5” form factor), delivering roughly 120TB of capacity before deduplication. You can read more about it here.


Thoughts And Conclusion

StarWind never fail to deliver an interesting presentation at Tech Field Day events. I confess I didn’t expect to be having a conversation with someone about their VTL offering. But I must also confess that I do come across customers in my day job who still need to leverage VTL technologies to ensure their data protection workflow continues to work. Why don’t they re-tool their data protection architecture to get with the times? I wish it were that simple. Sometimes the easiest part of modernising your data protection environment is simply replacing the hardware.

StarWind are not aiming to compete in enterprise environments, focusing more on the SMB market. There are some nice integration points with their existing product offerings. And the ability to get the VTL data to a public cloud offering will keep CxOs playing the “cloud at all cost” game happy as well.

[Image courtesy of StarWind]


There are a lot of reasons to get your data protected in as many locations as possible. StarWind has a good story here with the on-premises part of the equation. According to StarWind, VTL will remain around “until backup applications (all of them) learn all cloud and on-premises object storage APIs … or until all object storage settles on a single, unified “standard” API”. This looks like it might still be some time away. A lot of environments are still using technology from last decade to perform business-critical functions inside their companies. There’s no shame in delivering products that can satisfy that market segment. It would be nice if everyone would refactor their applications for cloud, but it’s simply not the case right now. StarWind understand this, and understand that VTL is performs a useful function right now, particularly in environments where the advent of virtualisation might still be a recent event. I know people still using VTL in crusty mainframe environments and flashy, cloud-friendly, media and entertainment shops. Tape might be dead, but it feels like there are a lot of folks still using it, or its virtual counterpart.