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March 2000
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Storage Options

Bigger Is Better: Improved Optical Storage Media Saves More Critical Backup Data

With the increasing demands of cyberspace, firms must re-evaluate storage choices.

By Mike Mihalik

IF YOU WANT to see someone have a true religious experience, watch what happens when she accidentally overwrites a document or graphic she have been working on for hours or days. Watch her beg and plead with their computer when she hits the wrong key, wiping out all of her creative effort.

It happens. Every day, millions of computer users accidentally lose vital data.

In fact, after hardware or system malfunctions, "pilot" error is the chief cause of lost data, researchers report. Human error far exceeds dreaded computer viruses, hard disk crashes and natural disasters.

System and network managers try to avoid the problems by routinely backing up user data. But most agree that their efforts aren't a complete protection against data loss. Most acknowledge that there is considerable data (hours of user work) lost between the regular backups, which are usually done automatically overnight.

Unfortunately, the network system is of no assistance to the standalone computer user who just lost a huge project eight hours after the last network-wide backup. Since the early 1980s, PC manufacturers have included some form of drive to save programs and data. We remember the all-but-extinct 1.44 MB floppy drive; in today's storage-hungry environments, systems routinely offer a minimum 2 GB hard drive.

Today's lawyers typically handle large applications, develop enriched multimedia presentations and download volumes of documents and data from the Internet. Backing up or moving old but important files offline not only protects the data, it slows the need for continuous hard drive upgrades.

Internet and more

Factors driving current storage requirements include:

  • The Internet and e-mail: Today, we each send and receive an average of 100 e-mails a day to people across town, across the country and around the globe. While most of the e-mails are mercifully short, they increasingly have complex artwork, multimedia presentations, detailed proposals and photos attached. All of this data must be captured and safely stored.

  • Multimedia: A single minute of compressed quality video requires more than 100 MB of capacity. Users are combining graphics, sound, images and full-motion video which sends storage requirements through the roof. In many instances, the files are too bulky to send across the Internet and must be copied to removable media and shipped to the recipient.

  • World Wide Web: A vendor's Web server often packs 250+ GB online. At the same time, individuals and organizations are downloading Web pages, they are adding more data to their individual and organizational databases.

While low-end, high-capacity (LEHC) floppy drives are available, their capacity (120 MB) is still limited to data and document file backup. Even 100MB and 250MB Zip drives have a difficult time keeping pace, especially when users consider the high cost of the media.

Users have begun looking closely at their backup and near-online storage requirements. What they really need is a cost-effective and safe system without sacrificing performance and usability. As a result, optical storage options have once again become sexy.

While it is true that optical cannot match the performance of hard drives, not every application requires this kind of throughput. Individuals increasingly understand that there can be significant savings by moving less active files to low-cost, reliable media. In fact, removable optical media has some distinct advantages:

  • No other technology offers the unique combination of high capacity, durability and longevity.

  • Optical disks aren't susceptible to head crashes. If a hard disk crashes, data added since the last backup is probably lost. The media is virtually impervious to contamination or data corruption due to magnetism, moisture or other contaminants that frequently damage magnetic media.

  • Optical disks are more durable than magnetic media or tape -- an important consideration when disks are used in today's hectic office environment.

  • Unlike tape, which records sequentially, optical provide fast, random access to data.

  • The media has a data life of more than 30 years.

Optical storage has become very popular for a wide range of data-intensive applications such as multimedia, graphic design, digital audio and video editing. Now it is being recognized as an excellent tool for backup and disaster recovery.

CD-Based Products

CD-ROM drives are standard in most PC systems. According to DISK/TREND, a Mountain View, Calif., market research firm, CD-ROM drive sales exceeded 66 million units last year. This year, sales should reach 85 million.

To expand the use of the CD technology, early manufacturers introduced expensive, temperamental CD-Recordable (CD-R) drives. With each subsequent generation of CD-R drive quality, reliability and ease-of-use improved -- and so did the price. For added versatility, the industry introduced CD-ReWritable (CD-RW) drives. Finally, we had a true multi-purpose drive that could write CD-R and CD-RW media as well as read CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, CD-Audio and CD-Video media.

A number of factors have made CD-RW a versatile storage option. These include:

  • More reliable, easier to use software.

  • Drives from multiple manufacturers which have driven prices to the point where they are almost impulse buy items.

  • Almost all of the CD-ROM drives installed in computers over the past three years will read both -R and -RW media.

  • Dramatic drop in media prices -- about $1 for 650MB CD-R and $2 to $3 for CD-RW -- has made the media very disposable.

Last year, more than 5 million CD-RW drives were sold. This year, industry analysts project more than 12 million will be sold.

CD-RW media is increasingly used to store large files such as presentations, Web downloads and multimedia applications or to produce limited copies of stable files and databases. For backup and archiving applications or for storing files that won't be changed (such as old e-mail records) CD-R media, which has a storage cost of less than 1 cent /MB, can be used. Today's CD-RW drives can write to both CD-R and CD-RW media.

Recorded CD-R and CD-RW media can be read in any CD drive that conforms to the MultiRead specification. At the urging of the Optical Storage Trade Association, the specification was implemented by most CD-ROM manufacturers in 1997. Because of this, you can backup your complete hard drive with four to five discs, upgrade to a new computer, load the files and be back to work in no time at all. You can also copy large presentations or artwork files onto a CD, send them to someone and be relatively certain they will be able to read the data. In addition, the media is so cheap you don't worry about the disc being returned.

Many people use CD-RW today because their on-disc storage requirements are low. When they are ready for higher-capacity DVD-RAM, they can read the CD-stored data since DVD-RAM drives are backward read compatible.

DVD

More than 25 years after the CD was introduced the next generation storage has emerged. DVD is a removable system that was developed with the assistance of user input. While the greatest industry noise surrounding DVD is for the replacement of VHS tape, it is a high-performance, economical system that should be considered for computer storage and retrieval requirements.

In addition to providing fast data access, DVD-RAM media provides very low-cost storage (2.6 GB single-sided media costs only $.009 per MB and double-sided 5.2GB media costs only $.008 per MB).

DVD-RAM drive is best described as a multifunction drive that can:

  • Read/play rewritable DVD-Video discs

  • Record and read/play rewritable DVD discs

  • Read/play DVD-Recordable and DVD-ROM discs

  • Read/play commercially replicated CD-ROM and CD-R discs

  • Read/play CD Rewritable discs.

The earliest users were individuals and organizations producing educational, informational and training videos. Next came the knowledge and document management/ storage applications for business and government because more than 400,000 documents could be stored on a double-sided disc. Because of its rugged reliability and long data life, DVD-RAM media is also ideal for backups. Backups are typically full/incremental or differential (once a day, week, month, etc.). When the disc has been filled, the backup can start again at the beginning of the disc and overwrite the old data. Or, with good backup/disaster recovery procedures, the disc will be moved off-site to a secure location and a fresh disc used for back-up.

Protect Yourself

Even if your system is attached to a network and there is a sound backup procedure in place; keep in mind that no one is as concerned about protecting your data as you. It's always wise to have your own data protection plan in place.

First, determine how valuable your information is and what the biggest time gap in data loss you can tolerate. Another critical factor is how many days it would take to discover data corruption in one of your files. If you work in accounting, for example, it could be a full month before a problem is discovered. Trying to rebuild 30 days of data because of data corruption that occurred would be very expensive and very time-consuming.

If you have downloaded artwork or data from the Web and are incorporating it into a major design project, the problem may be discovered in two to three days but thousands of dollars of creative work may be suddenly worthless.

Here are some guidelines for personal system data protection:

  1. Maintain an archive of four full system backups on reliable optical media.

    Each time you complete a new complete backup, archive the oldest backup if it is on write-once media. If it is on rewritable media, recycle the media for a new backup.

  2. Backup often enough so that vital data loss is minimal.

  3. Keep old backups so if you discover data corruption you can go back to your older backups.

    There are a number of excellent automated backup software programs that work with optical drives. While a manual backup program may be a little less expensive, you can be certain that the day you forget to initiate the program will be the day disaster strikes.

  4. After every full system backup, test the discs to make certain you can recover all of your data. When you buy name brand, quality media you can be quite confident that the discs are good. However, production and backup operation problems can occur.

We know that people can innocently send you a corrupt file to work with and that hard drives were born to crash. A good automated backup program, an optical drive and a supply of write-once and/or rewritable discs, will save you from pleading with your computer, "I'm sorry, please give me back my data."

Mike Mihalik is vice president of engineering for LaCie Ltd., and is based in Hillsboro, Oregon.

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