Data, facts, figures, information, intelligence. Whatever you choose to call it, the simple truth is that we spend billions of pounds a year on IT in order to manage the stuff more efficiently. It?s a valuable commodity and it needs to be stored in an appropriate place.
Buying storage hardware is a complicated business. There are so many different categories of product using so many different types of technology that it?s difficult to identify exactly what you should be looking for.
One of the main problems is the sheer speed at which hardware becomes outdated ? and storage technology reaches obsolescence much quicker than most other components. Not long ago, 500Mb hard drives were considered ample for most people?s requirements, but it?s now practically impossible to lay your hands on a new drive with anything less than a 1.5Gb capacity. Likewise with CD-ROM drives: you pay #80 for a quad-speed, and before the year?s out eight-speed boxes are being sold for half the price.
Ever-changing standards also present a problem. It would seem that the PC industry is intent on ensuring that each storage device it produces is completely incompatible with everything else on the market. The current DVD debacle is a prime example of how the end user is at the mercy of the manufacturers. All the major players in the industry sit round the table to agree on the standards and specifications for the successor to the CD-ROM drive. Initially, all participants are agreed and products filter through to the marketplace, but within months no fewer than three separate factions are bringing out their own non-compatible specification drives.
It?s a jungle out there and every bulk purchase is a potential disaster for your organisation. We?ll be looking at a variety of storage solutions in the hope that you?ll be able to establish a clearer picture of the market as a whole and perhaps suggest a few ideas to help your company work more effectively.
For a long time the floppy disk has been the PC?s weak link. Practically every other component has been upgraded, enhanced and improved beyond recognition, while the conventional 1.44Mb high-density 3.5in floppy disk has remained unchanged for at least the past five years.
Although in its current form the 3.5in floppy is only really useful for storing and transferring relatively tiny files between PCs, the problem for anybody hoping to improve on the basic design is to retain compatibility with the original floppies. Further, any potential successor must be bootable ? the floppy drive has always been the last, if not only, hope of salvation for anybody suffering from a terminally unwell hard disk.
There have been several attempts to replace the floppy and while some, such as the Zip drive, have enjoyed a great deal of success, none of them have offered backwards compatibility with the legacy floppy. That?s where the Superdisk succeeds. It?s a drive which can read and write to all traditional 3.5in media, but can also use the special 120Mb disks currently manufactured by 3M. Sounds familiar? Well, the drive is hardly a brand-new product. It has been around for about a year now, marketed under three different names ? the LS120, the A:Drive, and now, the Superdisk.
Several PC manufacturers, most notably Compaq and Siemens Nixdorf, have included the drive in some of their higher end desktop PCs and the drive has been available as an off-the-shelf upgrade kit for some time. The Superdisk is available as either an internal or an external device using IDE and parallel interfaces respectively.
The internal unit simply connects to your PC?s existing IDE controller. You?ll be able to boot up from the drive so long as your Bios supports Atapi-compatible devices, such as bootable disks (most recent systems should, but check with your supplier).
However, if you?re using a machine with an older Bios you?ll need to buy the Floppy MAX IDE interface card which will allow you to boot up. Most Bios manufacturers, such as Phoenix, Award and AMI, already have firmware upgrades which support the LS120, or will produce one in the near future.
The external drive is even easier to connect. You simply plug it in to your parallel (printer) port, install the drivers and off you go. The only disadvantage is that you need to find an additional power point to run it from, which in many offices is a little difficult to say the least. The external device is also useful as a cost-effective portable storage system for situations where it wouldn?t be feasible to fit a drive to every machine.
The Superdisk isn?t as fast as devices like the Zip drive, but unless you?re planning to run applications from it on a regular basis (which would be a fairly pointless thing to do), then this shouldn?t present any difficulties. As it stands, its performance is roughly four times that of the traditional floppy drive ? even when using legacy 1.44Mb disks.
The Superdisk is a good replacement for the dated floppy drive. Unfortunately, due to a combination of relatively high pricing and somewhat lacklustre marketing, it?s not as successful as it should be. Fortunately, the LS120 technology has become an open standard which means that manufacturers will be free to build and market their own compatible devices. Panasonic already has an internal LS120 drive of its own available, the Superdisk 120Mb.
With a little more industry support and a lot more public awareness the drive will, hopefully, take its rightful place as the mass-market removable media device in every future PC sold.
Price: Imation external drive #129; Panasonic internal drive #79; 120Mb disk #12.76
Imation: 01344 402 402200; www.imation.com
Panasonic: 0500 404041; www.panasonic.com
SyQuest SyJet 1.5GB
Syquest?s latest entry into the removable storage market is the Syjet 1.5Gb which, as its name suggests, is capable of storing a massive 1.5Gb on a single removable cartridge. This takes it from the basic data transfer market and positions it firmly in the audio-visual storage arena, with potential uses in the video-editing, graphic design, publishing, presentation and digital audio markets. It can also be used, of course, as a removable hard drive for storing applications and data, or for backing up entire hard drives as a precaution against data loss.
Syquest made its name in the Macintosh market, providing removable storage drives for the graphics industry, and launched its first PC drives only a few years ago. This latest drive is available in internal SCSI, external SCSI and external parallel port versions, with both Mac and PC connection kits, and drivers are provided for virtually all the common operating systems. The external unit looks similar to the existing 230Mb EZFlyer product but has a better build quality and is more solid.
The drive uses 3.5in cartridges that are marginally thinner than those used by the Iomega Jaz drive. Syquest supplies a single cartridge with each drive, housed in a protective plastic casing. Cartridges are inserted via a drop-down flap in the front panel, and a transparent window allows you to see the label of the loaded disk. With rubber feet on the bottom and the side, the Syjet 1.5Gb can be used either horizontally or, if desk space is restricted, vertically, with the supplied plastic ?foot? providing stability.
In terms of performance, the Syjet 1.5Gb is based on hard-drive technology, so it?s considerably quicker than the magneto-optical alternatives. The drive platters are stored in the cartridge, while the read/write heads are located in the drive itself. This proven technology produces performance that, while not quite a match for a conventional hard drive, is sufficient to allow applications to be run straight from the drive with little or no performance loss. The maximum data-transfer rate is quoted as 7Mb/sec, with a seek time of around 12ms.
As a competitor to the Iomega Jaz drive, the Syjet 1.5Gb is rather late to market, but that extra development time has produced a fast, high-capacity drive with cartridges that fit comfortably in your pocket. The ultra-low cost per megabyte should help to ensure that sales of this drive are lively.
Price: Internal SCSI #212.76; external SCSI or parallel #280.84; 1.5Gb cartridges #85.10, or #212.76 for three
Syquest: 0800 526559
The problem of short lifespan technology is particularly acute for laptop users. Not only are these devices generally much harder to upgrade, but the higher initial cost means that companies are far more reluctant to write them off as obsolete and buy replacements. CMS Enhancements produces a range of hard drive upgrades which allow you to breathe a little more life into ageing laptops at a relatively low cost.
The system works quite simply. You are supplied with a new laptop hard drive of your chosen size along with a caddy specific to your particular laptop model (assuming CMS has it in its range). Also included is a PCMCIA card which acts as an IDE interface and a disk of driver software. This allows you to run a standard laptop hard disk as an external drive.
First of all you connect your new disk externally and, using the software provided, create a mirror of your existing hard drive. This means that you can keep all your existing applications, data and setup information without the trauma of having to re-install everything. Once the copy is made, you simply remove the old hard drive, replace it with the new one and you?re ready to go. How easy this procedure is depends largely on the type of laptop you own, but with the vast majority of them removing the old hard disk is fairly straightforward, requiring nothing more than the loosening of a few screws.
The advantage of this system over buying a replacement drive and installing it manually is that this kit provides you with a neat, enclosed, plastic case into which you can fit your old drive. Doing this will allow you to use the old unit as an external drive ? via the supplied PCMCIA card IDE interface ? for backup or extra storage, instead of having to discard it.
If you?re working in a corporate environment, where you might have an entire fleet of laptops that need to be upgraded, you can simply opt to buy a single IDE interface card with however many drives you need. This will help to minimise the overall cost of the upgrade process, but it does mean that the end users will be unable to use their old drives as external disks.
The upgrades are available for most popular laptop brands, including Compaq, Dell, HP, NEC, IBM and Toshiba. They come in three sizes ? 1.4Gb, 2Gb and 3Gb ? and larger versions should be available in the near future.
Considering the sheer expense involved in writing off old laptops and buy new ones, it has got to be worth considering this kit purely on economic grounds because it?s a realistic way of potentially saving tens of thousands of pounds.
Price: 1.4Gb #249; 2Gb #499; 3Gb #659; Easymove Data Transfer Kit: #79.50
Portable Add-Ons: 01256 330600
If you?re stuck with an older low-tech laptop, the chances are that it won?t provide the benefits of a CD-ROM drive and a decent sound system ? features which most current portables include as standard.
Replacing existing components with more up-to-date hardware is tricky enough, but adding features which your laptop never possessed in the first place presents a whole new set of difficulties. But not, you will be glad to hear, in this particular instance. The Backpack Bantam is an external CD-ROM drive which provides you with 16-bit sound capabilities as well.
Installation is simple: you simply connect the drive to your laptop?s parallel port using the supplied cable, install the drivers, which come in both DOS and Windows flavours, and you?re ready to go ? that is, once you?ve plugged it into a power point, of course. What?s that you say? No power points on the 12:33 to Milton Keynes? Oh dear. And therein lies the Bantam?s only major fault. It?s a device which is designed primarily to expand the capabilities of mobile computers, yet it?s incapable of operating anywhere without a power point.
That said, if you?re planning to use the device for mobile presentations, then assuming your destination has the luxury of an electricity supply, you should be OK. So let?s not dismiss the Bantam as entirely useless, but consider it merely flawed.
The sound hardware is compatible with Windows Sound System, and uses clever driver technology to allow it to work through the parallel port. The upshot of this is that, if you?re running software which has been written specifically to run in the Windows environment, then it will be able to take advantage of the Bantam?s sound capabilities. DOS-based software won?t be able to access the sound hardware.
The unit features a built-in speaker along with a volume-control wheel; alternatively, you can plug in a pair of headphones or speakers. Other connections included are a microphone socket as well as line-in and line-out jacks.
The Backpack Bantam also features a through-port which allows you to continue using a printer at the same time as the Bantam. You simply connect your printer cable to the port on the back of the drive. Although the manufacturer does not provide a speed rating for the drive expressed in the traditional format (ie 12-speed, 24-speed and so on) it does claim that its maximum data-transfer rate is 1,200Kb per second which isn?t bad considering that it has to drag data through the parallel port.
Apart from its obvious application as a laptop enhancement, the drive is also useful for IT support staff because it can be quickly connected and disconnected ? perfect for situations in which you have CD-based software that needs to be deployed to the end-user?s desktop.
Ideally, what this drive needs is a battery pack so it can be used on the road. As mentioned, its need for a power supply is a fairly major failing, although this doesn?t render the drive useless because there are plenty of applications for a lightwieght, easy-to-install portable CD-ROM drive.
Inmac: 0990 168678
HP SureStore CD Writer 7100e
Some have argued that the re-writable CD is an idea doomed to failure, on the grounds that the expense of the media (and the necessary hardware) is such that people would rather use write-once CD recorders.
The main crux of this argument is that the price of write-once CDs is so negligible that users can afford to discard them once they become full, whereas re-recordable CDs are too expensive to be used as day-to-day transferable media. On average, CD-Rs cost #3 or less, while CD-RWs cost in excess of #20 ? a significant difference.
While this is a fairly cogent argument at present, there is no doubt that media prices will fall to a more acceptable level in the not-too-distant future ? and, even now, rewritable CDs are easily within the grasp of all but the most financially destitute or parsimonious organisations.
Regardless of these considerations, the HP Surestore 7100e serves all camps by allowing users to write to both CD-R and CD-RW discs, which means for a little extra initial outlay you can take advantage of both types of media.
The CD-RW is, in theory, a fine idea ? a CD-ROM disc that you can treat for all intents and purposes like a floppy disk. You can write to it as many times as you like, erase unwanted files to free up space and, best of all, practically every machine in the world has a CD drive so you?ve got universal compatibility. At least, that?s the theory. In practice, CD-RW discs can be read only by CD-RW drives or CD-ROM drives which support the new industry Multiread specification, and as this is a relatively new initiative, most existing drives don?t. CD-R discs are more widely compatible, but have the obvious drawback of being write-once.
The drive is available as an internal device which connects to your PC?s IDE interface, as well as the parallel external device reviewed here. Once a CD-RW disc is formatted (a process which takes between 30 and 60 minutes) it?s assigned a drive letter and can then be treated just like an ordinary disk drive. The Adaptec software supplied provides a range of useful functions, including file backup and copying of entire CDs ? it even helps you to produce labels and inserts for your CD cases.
The drive can also be used to create audio CDs. It does this in two ways: first you can select audio tracks from existing CDs and get the software to copy them onto your disc. Alternatively, the software can convert computer-generated WAV files into CD audio. Either way, you?ll be able to play the end results through any standard CD player.
The Surestore 7100e is a useful piece of kit purely because it supports both CD-RW and CD-R formats. However, it?s sadly let down by the compatibility issue, which at present renders re-writable CDs almost useless. Until they become more widely supported, this drive is little more than an expensive CD-R writer.
Price: #401 (internal version: #327); pack of three CD-RW discs: #60
Hewlett Packard: 0990 474747; www.hp.com
LaCie Elite 23Gb
It?s hard to believe that not so long ago 100Mb hard drives were generally considered to be more than large enough to deal with anything the world could throw at a PC. Even harder to swallow is the thought that, if you now go into any IT store and ask for a hard drive of any capacity lower than 1.5Gb, you?d probably be thrown out on to the street.
And the rapid increase in hard drive sizes is showing no sign of tailing off. Micropolis recently announced the availability of 3.5in form factor drives with a capacity of 20Gb, the largest internal devices to date. However, if you want the biggest drive available for your PC, then this 23Gb monster from LaCie (formerly Electronique d2) is well worth your attention.
The external drive uses Seagate?s Elite drive mechanism built into its own Sto/l 5.25in metallic casing. The drive uses an Ultra Wide SCSI interface, and LaCie can supply a SCSI interface card should you require it. Performance certainly isn?t the best on the market. The drive features a 2Mb internal buffer and delivers a claimed maximum data-transfer rate of 40Mb/sec with an average seek time of 13ms. This is far from bad, but LaCie recommends that, if speedy access time is important, you should consider its faster 9Gb drives.
The drive has a fairly wide range of applications. Any department in your organisation could no doubt justify why they should be provided with one of these units. The most likely application is attaching one to a high-volume server, but there are several others.
Digital video production is a technology that is becoming increasingly accessible and attractive to all sorts of organisations, the only real difficulty with it being that for high-quality results you need a lot of disk space to work with. According to the manufacturer, this drive can store up to one-and-a-half hours of digital video using a compression ratio of 2:1.
If you want high-capacity storage, this drive certainly delivers. Our only concern is that technology improves and prices fall so quickly that it won?t be long before you find yourself stuck with a piece of outdated technology depreciating in value faster than a ?Free Nelson Mandela? T-shirt.
LaCie: 0171 872 8000; www.eld2.com
Hopefully, over the previous few pages you?ll have seen something which you think could be of use to your company. We?ve covered only a handful of the storage products available, but we?ve tried to look at those which we think businesses could gain tangible benefits from and those which offer the best promise of long-term usefulness.
When you?re considering new storage products, try to look at the bigger picture. A massive new hard drive might seem like a good idea, but how long will it be before the price halves? A CD-RW drive may sound good in theory, but it will be of little use to you if the CD drives in your organisation cannot read the discs it creates.
The market and the technologies change fast ? probably faster than most other areas of IT. So, if you?re looking at a long-term investment, research is vital. Always try to find out if any developments are likely affect your buying decision. Manufacturers simply want you to buy whatever they have on their shelves so they can make space for the next generation of products in a couple of months.
Be cynical and don?t be afraid to ask yourself seemingly stupid questions. Your decision could be as important as making a commitment to, for example, Betamax or VHS.
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