The changing face of storage

When the first consumer hard disks were released in the early 80s they were 5.25 inches wide, weighed more than a house brick, had capacities of 5-10MB and were commonly called Winchester disk drives. The cost with an ST506 controller card was about $1000 - but then early PCs were worth about $3000 so I suppose it's all relative.

In the late 80s we saw the first of the 3.5-inch integrated drive electronics with voice coil actuation instead of stepper motors, which had needed to be manually parked if you wanted to move the PC. In fact, it wasn't until the early 90s that we saw capacities go over 1GB and most media comment at the time was asking who would need that much space anyway.

Today, hard disks up to 500GB are available for a few hundred dollars, 2GB of flash memory costs less than $200 and even recordable DVD disks can hold 4.7GB of information.

Backup drives the storage market - even in the digital home. Hard disks are mechanical and will fail so backup is an essential way of preserving everything from student assignments to digital music collections.

Today's conundrum is that we are storing more, backup is taking longer and we don't want to throw anything out. I have documents and photos dating back five years or more!

Music, movies and digital photos take a lot of space. An average three-minute .wav file is about 50MB but, after it is ripped to an MP3 or WMA track at 128Kbps, this comes down to about 3MB.

Photos depend on the resolution you shoot at but will take up anywhere from 1MB to 16MB each - and we do like to take photos. I am not really a photo buff but have taken about 3000 during the past few years and already need about 20GB of storage. This figure will only grow. I have not even started to archive all my old hard-copy photos and there are at least a few thousand that I will scan as an editable 6MB .bmp file.

Movies are out-growing DVDs too. An average two-hour movie takes about 4.7GB and if you download from the Internet it can take a whole lot more. I don't download but if you count the old VCR tapes that I have used to store classics on then I could use over 100GB of space very easily, not to mention the growing need to archive old home movies. And I would like to use my PC as a personal hard-disk recorder to replace the VCR as soon as a good electronic program guide is available at a reasonable cost.

Email and Web surfing have also driven the storage explosion. My Outlook data file is about 2GB and I have numerous cached Web pages as well as many PowerPoint presentations that top out at more than 100MB.

For an average family of four that all use a PC - especially one with teenage children - you can see that storage is becoming a major headache. The solution is personal external storage and it is one of the next big things in our industry.

Companies such as LaCie, Iomega, Seagate and Maxtor are betting the farm on this. They are offering a range of options including USB, FireWire, 10/100/1000 Ethernet and high-speed SCSI options that plug directly into PCs and home networks. Most use standard ATA or SATA hard disks, some offer RAID and capacity is running into terabytes (1000GB).

But storage is not just a PC problem. Look at all the smart phones, PDAs, portable music players, TVs and electronic devices that now have built-in hard disks. All of these will require a server somewhere to back them up.

So how do you make a buck from this?

Stocking: Start by having the less expensive external Direct Attached Storage (DAS), USB and FireWire hard disks from leading brands in stock. Training: Make sure your staff are offering backup options with gadget sales.

BYO: A 250GB USB external drive costs about $400 but you could build your own by taking a cheaper case and putting a 250GB drive in it.

Take note: All notebook buyers should be looking at a DAS device if only for peace of mind as they are more likely to suffer from damage due to movement or theft.

Networking: Tell people who buy Wi-Fi routers or install home networks that there are now some really nice Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices available. It costs a little more but you can always offer a wired alternative for about $100 less.

Storage has traditionally been a boring subject but it's time to get over this and start making money.

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