HP – Developing a next generation storage system

February 18, 2011 | By More

Don’t just listen to what your customer say, understand what they need.

This is a true story about how the DAT/DDS (Digital Audio Tape/Digital Data Storage) tape backup system was launched back in the late 1980’s.

Inside 'James Bond' villain's Data Center

We’ve all seen those old James Bond movies where the computer rooms have refridgerator sized tape machines with the reels of tape rotating in the background.

The maximum capacity at that time for each reel of 0.5 inch wide tape measuring about 10 inches across was only 40MB! (Data compression triples the capacity to 120MB!) This sometimes can take up to two hours to back up. Imagine backing up information in a bank or a large corporation with several hundred megabytes of data or more. This can take all night and several reels will need to be used. The backup will also have to be completed by the time people come to work in the morning. Otherwise the system will still be down ‘for maintenance’.

The objective of the Quickstep team at HP Bristol in England was to create a next generation backup tape and system that has the potential to extend into the future when increased storage will need to be backed up. From our own market research, we also found out customers were reluctant to change backup tape systems because they do not want to have to upgrade all their systems too often. They also need them to read the tapes that have been archived for about 10 years.

The Quickstep team from Sony with the HP team in the foreground

After a thorough investigation on storage technologies available ranging from optical tape, optical disc, helical scan, longitudinal recording and a multitude of other technologies, we concluded the DAT technology developed by Sony had the highest potential.

Comparison of DAT capacity with half-inch tape (right) and quarter-inch tapes (left)

The DAT tape was about the size of a credit card and less than 0.4 inch thick. The total tape storage capacity would be over 1GB – an enormous amount at the time. The DAT tape drive system need only be no bigger than a shoe box, compared with the size of a large fridge in the case of a half inch tape. A joint product team was quickly formed with Sony and a completed prototype was ready within 2 years.


We also validated the product with customers. This was done through a road show with all major customers of the product. A joint marketing and product design team visited all the major computer companies and some of our biggest customers like banks and insurance companies.

The feedback shocked us all – the comments were consistent throughout our visits:

“The capacity is impressive, but the tape is too small.”

“Can you make it compatible with existing half inch tape please?”

“We are concerned with security – a disgruntled employee can now put over 1GB of bank information in his pocket and walk out with it.”

“Can we buy it from other manufacturers too?”

Marketing was convinced that the feedback was negative – reading the feedback to mean the customer wanted the product only if DAT was the same size as half inch tape, but with larger capacity.

The world's first DAT/DDS tape drive designed by the HP-Sony Quickstep team

Undeterred, the design team pushed further to understand why the customer liked it and how to address their concerns. We concluded their comments about “compatibility” was not about size. They told us two important points:

The first was software compatibility – they were not keen to update all their backup software systems since it will mean additional cost of upgrading their systems and retraining all their operators. We addressed that by making the DAT system behave like a half-inch tape drive so their old software will be compatible with the new device.

The second issue was hardware compatibility – they wanted to be able to plug and play another manufacturer’s DAT backup system. This will give them choice. We solved that by creating an industry standard for this new innovative system. We created an industry consortium called the DDS Manufacturers’ Group and invited all interested manufacturers, including competitors to join and contribute to improve the design.

The DDS Manufacturer’s Group continues to function to this day and has already released the 7th generation specification of DAT/DDS, allowing up to 320GB per tape.

DDS Technology roadmap published by the DDS Manufacturer's Group

The concern about being too small was a non issue once the customers were able to see the other advantages. Customers found ways to work around this problem.

DAT has dominated low-end backup

With over 18 million drives and close to 500 million pieces of media shipped, DAT technology is the most popular tape drive technology ever.   DAT continues to dominate the low end of the tape drive market with a 86% market share in H1 2009, and 32% of overall tape drive shipments, according to IDC Reports.

So remember:
The key about customer feedback is not only to hear what they are saying to you, but more importantly, understand what they are trying to tell you.

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About the Author ()

EngTong, pioneer and innovator. Graduated from Imperial College London with an MBA from Cranfield School of Management. Lived in Scotland, England, California, Beijing and led teams in Italy, France, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia to do the impossible. Now based in Singapore and believes the future is to blend the sophistication of western management practices with the strength of Asian Values. Trained as a Chartered Engineer. Member of IET, Associate of City and Guilds and a certified SixSigma Champion.

Comments (4)

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  1. PS says:

    I am getting lazy. After reading the first few lines, I jump right to So remember: The key about customer feedback is not only to hear what they are saying to you, but more importantly, understand what they are trying to tell you. Got the message loud & clear!


  2. A Arthur says:

    Hello Engtong, you look so puny with these two big muscle guys beside you in those days. Good reading material as to how a system evolves to fit the customers’ requirements. thank you

  3. Kamarulzaman says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. I learned a lot on how important it is to seek feedback from customers and how critical it is to have industry standards in the backup and storage systems. The fact that it is still going strong now speak volumes on your company’s success in getting people to work together and creating innovative solutions to a business problem. I’d like to ask for your permission to use this article for my case study in class.

    Thank you.

    • Error: Unable to create directory uploads/2018/12. Is its parent directory writable by the server? ET says:

      Dear Kamarulzaman,
      Thank you for your kind comments and wanting to use this article for teaching. You have my permission. Please also acknowledge the source. For your information, industry standards is also critical in many areas, particularly in expanding the market rather than keeping the technology to yourself. Read also about something we’ve done – infrared, leading to Bluetooth – in this article: http://alphatechsg.azurewebsites.net/2011/01/creating-a-wireless-industry-standard/
      If you need more background about any of these please contact me directly.

      All the best in your teaching.