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How to fix your HP or Tandberg LTO1/LTO2/LTO3/LTO4/etc. drive’s tape path leader.  §

My tech posts have always generated the most traffic over the years, so here’s another one for you tech heads. Sorry, no pictures.

I have a love-hate relationship with tape storage over the years. Mostly hate. QIC, 4mm, 8mm, AIT, DLT, LTO, I’ve tried them all. They are all crap. The drives rarely last longer than a year or two and the tapes even less than that.

But with that said, offline, semi-archival storage is offline, semi-archival storage. I’ve also had terrible luck with hard drives, and they lose data just sitting on a shelf. If they ever spin up again after sitting on a shelf.

So… I have tapes.

I’ve recently switch from DLT to LTO4. And of course, one of the first things that happened to me was that I accidentally powered down with a tape in the drive.

“Oh shit,” I said to myself, “I hope the firmware can cope.”

Like an idiot, I powered back on, without taking the suggested steps:

  • Disassemble my tower

  • Decable, unscrew, and remove the drive

  • Stand it on its side and do the arduous and very time-consuming manual eject procedure that HP outlines on YouTube and that takes hours of mind-numbing wrist work

So what happened when I powered back on?

  • The drive got confused

  • It snapped the tape

  • Of course the tape load leader was now in the wind-up spool, meaning that the drive was dead with piles of tape inside it, and the tape was dead, too

  • All of reality was borked

So, lesson one for LTO:

(1) Never power back on if you accidentally power off with a tape in the drive. You may kill your drive. You will definitely destroy a tape. The firmware cannot cope.

Now, let me help you to fix the problem. With some narration.

Fixing a Lost Tape Leader

If your drive has snapped a tape, the pick-up leader that grabs the pin in LTO tapes to wind them into the drive now can’t be recovered, Normally, it’s wound back out and grabbed near the end of the eject procedure, so that when you insert a new tape, it can grab the new tape and wind it into the drive, etc.

But now your leader is sitting on the inner spool, and if you hold the door open when you power on the drive, you can see it just spinning and spinning for a bit, before you get the Yellow Light of Death indicating that you’re supposed to send the drive in for a $1,500 service.

Side note: That’s crap. So is the $4,000 sticker price of an LTO drive. Just wait until you get inside. These things are made of the same metal casing as a $12 DVD-ROM drive, plus one circuit board, plus a bit of tinfoil and plastic. They’re designed to fail so that those hefty enterprise service contracts can generate a ton of revenue.

Don’t fuck with that. Do this instead. Again, sorry, no pictures, but if you’re mechanically inclined, this should be enough to get the light bulb on and get you there.

  1. Take your drive out of whatever it’s mounted in.

  2. Get some torx screwdrivers and pop the top of the drive case right off. Cut through those warranty stickers. Fuck ’em.

  3. Get a magnifying glass or head-mounted optics and carefully disconnect all the cables and any screws from the top circuit board(s) so that you can get it (or them) off of the drive. You want access to the inner spool.

  4. Do the manual eject procedure enough to get the tape cartridge out of the drive and out of the way.

  5. Now take some time gently getting the miles and miles of LTO tape off of the inner spool. Don’t get an Xacto knife and slice through it or you’ll slice through the leader (more on this later though).

  6. When all the tape is out, and you’re just looking at the leader flopping helplessly in the breeze, notice that the plastic end of the leader has two posts on it, one at the top and one at the bottom.

  7. Notice also that near the rear of the drive there is a crevice into which this can slide, with the posts fitting into grooves. This is the tape path. Insert it into the tape path, making sure that if fully extended through the path, the tape will not be twisted.

  8. It will look like there’s no way to get it in there beyond just the entrance. There is. Gravity will help you. This is a low friction operation, the tape leader is not stiff, and the latch unit at the end of the leader is heavy. Just tilt the drive around to get the leader to slide through the path.

  9. You will get stuck halfway and it won’t move any more. You’ll be tempted to disassemble the path housing or to try to poke in there with a needle or something to pull it all along. Don’t. There is nothing fancy that has to be done, just some grunt work.

  10. Flip the drive over. Find the manual eject bolt, the one that you twist to manually eject tapes. Get your nut driver and start turning. Only this time, you’re not ejecting—turn the other way. You’re inserting again, even though there’s no tape in the drive now. Twist until fully inserted (or until what would be fully inserted if there was actually a tape there).

  11. Try to move the tape leader through the tape path again with gravity. Voila! With the mechanics in the “tape inserted” position, the tape path is now magically clear. A bit more tilting and the end of the leader should fall right through to the front of the drive.

  12. Now wind the manual eject mechanism again to move the “imaginary” tape all the way back out once more, to the ejected position.

  13. You should now be able to see where the leader latch is supposed to sit—right next to the corner of a tape, latched into a couple of little springs. If you can’t use your imagination, partially insert an LTO cartridge and notice where the opening is. Your leader mounts near there. Look at its edges and look for a latching socket that they might fit into.

  14. Slide the latch into place. It will click. You will be amazed, looking at this crap machinery, that this pile of shit costs businesses $4,000 (and will even feel a bit taken for spending $200 on eBay).

  15. Give the leader a couple quick tugs by winding the inner spool. It should go taut now and not budge once taut, fully latched into place.

  16. Reassemble the drive and power up. No more Yellow Light of Death. Congratulations, your LTO drive has been repaired—and you didn’t have to spend $1,500 on a ten-minute repair that requires no special tools.

What’s that? You have objections? Let me see if I can guess what they are:

  • Q: Don’t I need a clean room for this?
    A: Take another look into your drive through the door. Do you see how much dust and debris is in there? Did you say a shit ton, yet your drive has been working anyway? Give that man a cigar. Guess what? You send it off to HP, they’re going to charge you $1,500 and some dude is going to be doing it on a dirty workbench that has had Mountain Dew spilled on it 14 times this year already.

  • Q: Won’t I hurt the alignment or some other Fragile Thing?
    A: Don’t dick around with the tape heads and you’ll be fine.

  • Q: But my leader snapped! What do I do? (Told you I’d come back to that.)
    A: Just get an Xacto knife and some Gorilla Tape and fix it right back up with a splice. Notice how thin and crap everything is inside these drives. These are not precision instruments. They’re built like the utter junk they are. Do what you have to to kludge a fix and carry on.

Seriously, if you paid $4,000 for one of these, you’re an idiot.

And if you were planning on paying $1,500 to repair one, or even $200 to pick up a replacement on eBay, now I’ve just saved you the trouble. Because this is what goes wrong on DLT drives and ten times as much on LTO drives. Leader problems. Over and over and over and over and over again.

So now you know how to fix them.

And never, ever power down your LTO drive with a tape in it, unless you get your kicks putting leaders back into place over and over again as you blow through tapes, ripping them to shreds.

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