Thursday, February 03, 2005

What floats my boat

Technology is a wonderful thing, and it is something that has always excited me. When the new product announcements roll in each day, I fan through them looking for the next really cool things that I really cannot afford.

Of course, I no longer look at the press releases for the huge high density flat-panel television sets that could possibly be used as a monitor, because I know in my heart of hearts that I’ll never own one of them.

Yet, when I look at new technology, I tend to also look at the technology that is being replaced. Sometimes, I’m sad to see the old technology go away, sometimes I am quite delighted.

One of the delightful young ladies who works in the bookkeeping department of the company that I go to each and every day in real life came walking into my office holding a 3-1/2 inch floppy disk and asked if I had anything that could read it. I caught myself before I said something like, “Well, duh!” and realized that it was an exceptionally valid question. Of the 40 or so desktop PCs in the company, not a single one has a floppy drive. The laptop users have floppy drives, but on this particular day, none were about.

Even my work PC, in the kingdom of the “resident geek,” has no floppy drive. This simple request had me momentarily puzzled, until I remember that my SQL server, and my PBX both have floppy drives. You’ve not been scared until you take a floppy disk of unknown origins and install it in the floppy drive of the server that holds all of the company’s critical data – even though it has all the virus protection one could reasonably expect. Then it wouldn’t read. Fortunately, the floppy drive in the PBX had no such difficulties, the file was read and a copy was sent out to the public access drive.

And I thought about it. We really don’t need the floppy drive, except on servers where one has to load those nasty SCSI device drivers as part of the install process, or, when one wants to retrieve some particularly old data. We really don’t want to use a floppy to facilitate sneaker-net. Not when USB flash drives with hundreds of times the capacity and blazing speed are inexpensive and easy to find. Heck, I half expect to see flash drives in a bubble pack at the supermarket check out – right next to the chewing gum and the breath mints. I keep my flash drive in the little zipper pouch where I keep my loose change and I rarely give it a conscious thought when I use it to move data from machine to machine, or to keep the executables when I am installing new software or updates on end user machines.

As I think about this, I can’t even remember the last time that I actually bought any floppy disks. Can you? The irony is that I still have some 5-1/4 inch media and a functional drive at home.

We’ve had a bit of difficulty with the tape backups where I work, and I’ve grown frustrated trying to back up parts of five servers, when the process takes two tapes and about 15 hours. The dozen or so tapes that I regularly use are all about a year old, and will need to be replaced soon at a cost of about $50 a tape. I’ve really started to hate tape. And of course, offsite storage means taking the tape home with me, and in Arizona, in the summer, one does not leave a magnetic tape in a car where the inside temperatures can reach 160 degrees. Oh, once can leave the tape in the car, but one best never need to get anything off of said tape, since it will be so warped that it will never fit in the drive again.

I’ve really come to dislike tape, and have been looking at alternatives. Naturally, I looked to Iomega thinking that one of their Bernoulli technology drives might fit the bill, but nothing in that product line currently floats my boat. In the process of looking at the Bernoulli technology I did notice that USB/Firewire hard drives, with very large capacity have gotten really, really cheap. I’ve also notices that the enclosures are much more durable as well. Te price point of these drives, with some backup software includes, is around a buck a gigabyte. I’ll be doing a review of just such a unit in a future issue.

This is exciting stuff. For less money than it will cost me to replace my backup tape set, I can buy a matched pair (monograms cost extra) of 250GB external drives, complete with backup software. Rotating media is much, much faster than tape, so that 15 hour tape backup will probably turn into a sub-3 hour disk backup. I’ll have enough money left over to buy one of those sexy stainless-steel cases with the foam linings, and I’ll just take a drive home every night. Now that’s a cool way to think about doing a tape backup! I could probably even get by with one drive, but I’d like to have the added protection of rotating backups in case I revert to form, trip over the painted lines in the parking lot, and drop one of the drives.

Maybe I can even have a tape burning ceremony.

So, with the advent of very fast, relatively inexpensive external hard drives, could the tape drive be headed to retirement? I’m not sure. Tape is used for more than simply backup, and may not be as close to retirement as the floppy drive. In addition, tape backup is somewhat institutionalized. Every CEO and CFO just knows you have to have tape backup, rotating tape sets, offsite tape storage and the like. They may not know or trust the idea of entrusting the corporate jewels to disk.

Unless, of course, the price is right.


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