Removable Storage: A Space Odyssey

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Changes in removable storage

From floppies to the Internet, Tom Arah explores offline storage.

As a designer you can never have too much space. This is true of hard disk and RAM as you work on your graphics-heavy projects, but it's also true for system backup, data backup, archiving and final delivery to your bureau. So what's the best way to deal with offline storage?

Back in the mists of time it wasn't really an issue as there were no alternatives. With my first computer, a 286 with 640K RAM and 20MB hard disk the solution for all archiving, backup and distribution needs was simple: a 5.25" floppy (and these were the days when "floppy" actually meant something!) capable of storing 1.2MB. Nowadays this sounds pathetic but at the time, with halftone images generally stripped in before print, it was enough to run a design business on. Even today the use of 3.5" 1.4MB floppies shouldn't be dismissed - after all every single PC still comes equipped with one.

If you are still using floppies, or any other removable storage for that matter, it's important to realise that it's not always a simple matter of copying over your project file. This was particularly the case in the early days of DTP when the main Ventura chapter file, for example, was actually just a list of pointers to the separate component text and graphic files, stylesheet and so on. This was a recipe for disaster unless you remembered to first use the program's own archiving routine which copied all the necessary files into the same directory and updated links accordingly.

Nowadays most applications embed the stylesheet and graphics into a single main project file, but you still have to be careful. Often there's an embedded file size limit so that it's easy to find that although the page looks fine onscreen, the images actually print as low resolution placeholders. In any case there's more to a publication than its text and images and to ensure that all fonts, H&J settings and relevant extensions are present and correct you really have to use your DTP application's in-built file management - usually called something like Collect for Output or Save for Service  Provider. The alternative for delivery to the bureau is to output Postscript files or PDFs with all images and fonts embedded, but as these aren't fully editable you are still going to have to get to grips with your application's file management for archiving.

Rw80save.png: Use your DTP application's in-built file management to ensure all files and links are correct.

Apart from missing components the other immediate problem when using floppies as storage is of course their capacity - these days many files are simply too big to fit on. This is where ZIP compression comes in. ZIP is a royalty-free compression scheme created by Phil Katz which works by substituting repeated sequences. Thanks to ZIP it's possible to squeeze files such as ASCII text and EPS drawings into around a fifth of their original size. For binary files the scheme is less effective and most graphic formats, such as JPEG, GIF or LZW-compressed TIFFs, already provide similar or better functionality so that zipped graphic files can even grow in size.

Even so, if only to be able to combine multiple files into a single package, some form of ZIP-based compression is an essential part of a designer's toolkit - especially these days when delivering material over the Internet. The original PKZIP and PKUNZIP were DOS-based command-line programs, but these days the most popular option is the GUI-based WinZip complete with features such as the ability to span multiple floppies and to create self-extracting EXEs. My favourite option by a long way though is PowerDesk 4 from www.ontrack.com. This is a Windows Explorer-style file manager with a whole host of benefits such as split windows, and in-built file viewing. Best of all it provides drag-and-drop support for ZIP files as if they are folders - and the basic version is free!

PowerDesk offers comprehensive ZIP file management.

Of course even with compression, the floppy soon proves impractical when you need to store multi-megabyte files and for system backup of entire hard disks it's virtually useless. This is where tape comes in and for workgroups some form of tape backup that can quickly restore a working system is essential. Over the years I've used a few systems. Or rather I've never really used them as, while backing up religiously, I've never restored more than the odd test file. This is part good fortune but just as much an inbuilt suspicion of such awkward and serial technology - I just don't feel comfortable with tape. In fact if the worst did happen I almost certainly wouldn't restore anyway but would take the opportunity to reinstall from scratch. As a standalone user then my real system backup is instead provided by another fully working set-up ready to go.

This is fine for applications but of course data still needs to be backed up on an ongoing basis as well as archived and delivered to your bureau. It was these combined demands that led to the development of removable media occupying the middle ground between hard disk and floppy. The first company to fill the gap was SyQuest back in 1982 with its 10MB drives, soon rising to 20, 30, 40 and 88MB. As each drive was actually a hard disk in a cartridge this not only offered capacity for storage but enough speed to run applications - effectively providing an infinitely extensible hard drive.

SyQuest created the removable storage market but the company that exploited it was Iomega. Iomega's success came from splitting the userbase into two groups. For high-end users it broke the psychological 1GB barrier with its fast Jaz drive, while for consumers it broke the 100MB barrier with its cheap and cheerful Zip drive. The Zip arrived at exactly the right moment with the development of PC Photography creating millions of users needing a larger floppy on which to store their "stuff". Within three years Iomega dominated the industry and in 1999 bought up SyQuest.

Iomega is the leader in removable storage.

Recently though the market has moved on again and Iomega has itself become stranded. The Jaz has been stuck at 2GB for years while hard disks of 60 and 75GB have become common - why spend around £500 for 10GB of comparatively slow offline storage when you can spend a fraction of that on increasing the size of your online drive? The Zip meanwhile has moved on to 250MB but is horribly slow by modern standards and looking almost as dated as tape. Both the Jaz and Zip have clearly reached their sell-by date and Iomega is now pinning its hopes on recombining both markets with its Peerless drive scheduled to launch in the middle of the year. With a base station selling for $249 and drives up to 20GB for $199 and throughput of up to 15MB/sec these should be attractive for advanced users but certainly won't have the mass consumer appeal of the Zip.

In any case the Zip's position as super-floppy has already been filled by the recordable CD-R with its solid-state technology, 640MB capacity, near ubiquity (there are over 300 million CD-drives out there and over 3 billion disks shipped annually) and its unmatchable advantage of audio CD handling. In fact the recordable CD-R arrived at around the same time as the Zip but it's only over the last few years that it has come to dominate. The reason is simple - falling prices and speed. My first drive was theoretically capable of 4x writing, but with the need to write the image to disk first and then to simulate burning to check for buffer under-run it could easily take forty minutes to produce a disk. Now there are 16-speed drives, such as Yamaha's partial-CAV CRW2100, that are able to write a full CD in under five minutes using on-the-fly software such as Nero Burning ROM.

Nero Burning ROM is ideal for producing data and audio CDs.

Of course these days drives aren't just capable of recording they are also capable of rewriting.  To be honest I've never been a huge fan of CD-RW as recording to multi-session CD-R is faster and cheaper. With packet-writing UDF (universal disk format) software such as Nero's InCD, however, you get the huge benefit that you don't need to load up pre-mastering software, you can simply drag and drop or save files directly to your CD. Unfortunately support for UDF is currently piecemeal (though by the time you read this Nero should finally support Windows 2000) and the resulting disks aren't readable under systems without UDF drivers installed. A positive sign on this front is last October's Mt. Rainier initiative which saw Microsoft promise to support CD-RW at the OS level including deleting to the recycle bin (ie no need to reformat).

It's clear that recordable CDs have changed out of all recognition since they first appeared apart from in one respect - capacity. Originally 640MB seemed huge but these days individual video files can be larger. Overburning now enables 700MB to be written but this is still inadequate for tasks such as hard drive backup to CD as offered by the likes of Norton Ghost and PowerQuest DriveImage 4. Clearly it's time for a hardware advance and at the end of last year TDK announced the development of a multi-level (ML) recorder that should triple current capacity and speed to provide the ability to record more than 2GB of data at 36x.

Even when announcing this, however, TDK acknowledges that "the ML format is a bridge to the era of inexpensive recordable DVD." This is the real future of removable storage with DVD's high capacity - 4.4 GB (equivalent to 7 CDs) for starters with dual-layer and double sided to come; its high speed - the sustained data transfer rate of a 16x DVD is 21.13 MB/s with a burst rate of 177.28 Mbps (equivalent to a 166x CD); and increasing market penetration - around 20% of desktops and 50% of notebooks sold last year included a DVD-ROM drive. What really makes the format special though is ability to handle encompass data, audio and video - no wonder the name stands for Digital Versatile Disk.

Unfortunately this versatility has led to a huge problem - the lack of a single standard. The Holy Grail is a rewritable format that is readable in any DVD-ROM drive. Today's two main options fail on these grounds as DVD-R is write-once, while DVD-RAM, which provides re-writability, defect management and fast access, is incompatible with most ROM drives so of little use for distribution (this may change with future DVD-ROMs). That leaves two mutually incompatible formats set to battle it out in 2001 for supremacy: DVD-RW (formerly DVD-R/W - don't ask) is the DVD Forum approved erasable format, while DVD+RW is an alternative based on CD-RW technology. It's impossible to say yet which is the better solution so it might well depend on who seizes ground first.  Particularly interesting on this front is the announcement from Pioneer of its combination drive that will write DVD-RW, DVD-R, CD-R, and CD-RW discs and all for around $1000 (by comparison its first DVD-R-only drive in 1997 cost $17,000!).

www.dvddemystified.com is the best DVD reference site.

The potential on the DVD front is undoubtedly exciting (a single disk for every project you've produced, every photo you've taken, your entire MP3 collection, whole drive backups) but of course there is another technology that is already here and can never be ignored - the Internet. The obvious benefit this offers is distribution - now rather than biking your CD around to the bureau you can simply send the files down the line. The obvious downside is speed. Remember that a 56Kbps modem can only upload data at 33.6Kbps which equates to shifting around 4KB per second (bytes as opposed to bits). That means a 10MB file will take over 40 minutes and that's if conditions are ideal. Obviously this costs time online but it's even more of a psychological limit. Generally I feel uncomfortable sending anything much bigger than a couple of MB - in other words I've hardly moved on from my first 5.25" floppy!

The solution of course is greater bandwidth and for the last few years I've been impatiently waiting for broadband access. ISDN always looked like a temporary fix and I don't have access to cable so, when BT announced its BTopenworld ADSL scheme last year, I immediately signed up for the Home option and looked forward to the launch in May. This was repeatedly put off, but in October the engineer finally arrived - only to find a problem at the exchange. No one at BT would give me any sort of timeframe of when the problem would be fixed, but eventually a call to BT's PR company had an engineer round within days.

Many other users have reported similar installation frustration, but when the system was finally up and running I have to say that I was impressed. BTopenworld offers 512Kbps downstream providing a throughput maximum of up to 65KB per second. In practice when downloading files I've often hit 60K though checking against a US Web meter site averages around 350Kbps or 44KB/s). ADSL is asynchronous which means that the upstream rate is only half this at 256Kbps but it still means that I can send files at up to 32KB per second. In practice this tends to be more like 25KB/sec but that still means that sending 1MB to the bureau takes just 40 seconds. And of course having paid the monthly price there's no running cost. The end result is that I'm now completely happy uploading and downloading files of any size.

Much the biggest difference of ADSL in practice though is the fact that you don't have to dial up to access - it's Always-On (AO). This completely changes the whole way that you see the Net with Web sites and resources seeming to be almost part of your own system. The downside of course is security as a permanent connection is an open invitation to hackers. To overcome this BTopenworld operates a system of dynamically changing addresses. Even so it's always better to play safe so I decided to install MacAfee's Personal Firewall which MacAfee is now providing as an ASP (Application Service Provider) service along with its well-known Anti-Virus program.

While at the MacAfee site my eye was caught by another ASP service, Mobile Disk, which rents out space to users effectively as a Web-based hard disk. In fact this is only one of a whole host of Web storage options that are now springing up - many of them free. The most interesting of these options that I came across was XDrive at www.xdrive.com which seems to be at least partially endorsed by Microsoft as an Office eService. XDrive offers 35MB free space (100MB if you have lots of pliable friends) and has the huge advantage that you can install a driver to enable your space to be accessed directly as a drive from within Explorer. Further upmarket and a better bet for the professional user is NetStore which, as Jon Honeyball explained in issue 77, promises secure, scheduled, incremental and unlimited backup from as little as £15 a month.

XDrive offers free Web storage integrated with your own system.

For both consumer and professional the advantages of Internet-based storage are compelling. To begin with the space can be universally accessible in ways that the floppy and CD can only dream of - in particular you can access data through devices such as Pocket PCs. Capacity is hardly going to be an issue either as your data is simply being stored on the ASP's server and cost is also going to be minimized with the competition and economy of scale that only the Internet can provide. Best of all security is improved with your data left in the hands of dedicated providers and, even if your entire office burns down, all your files are safe and immediately accessible. It really looks as if Internet-based storage successfully combines the benefits of both online and offline storage.

But don't get too carried away. Internet storage and the whole ASP business model, largely depends on fast AO access and after the initial excitement with BTopenworld things began to turn sour. In particular I began to notice my bandwidth dropping in the afternoon from around 3.30pm to around 8.30pm. Eventually I found it impossible to access at all with repeated 1453 "insufficient quota" errors. As technical support explained the 50:1 contention ratio "isn't meant to work like that" but it was pretty clear that I was sharing my bandwidth with more and more Napster-loving school-kids. This was bad enough but eventually BTopenworld suffered a major system failure from Friday through to Monday. Even worse, when the BTopenworld status line (a bad sign in itself) reported that all problems had been solved I was still unable to access.

Thankfully after a week my line was restored and I'm now back and running as happily as ever, but I've learned three things from the experience. The first is to be more sceptical about ADSL, AO, ASPs and the whole idea of merging the PC and the Net. Ironically the second is that, in spite of the problems, I'm more convinced than ever that this has to be the way forward - I was completely devastated when I had to return to working with a dial-up modem.

The third lesson is the most important - whatever your backup plan make sure you have a backup plan for it.

Tom Arah

April 2001


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