Running out of storage space.
Just as you can't be too thin or too rich, computer hard disks where software applications and data are stored can't be too large or too fast. Many CPAs are discovering that although their hard disks may have seemed quite adequate when first bought, now those same disks are bulging at the seams--a condition that could lead to a computer crash.
This article offers options on how to augment that limited storage space, create a convenient way to store more data--without resorting to the installation of a larger hard disk--and provide a more flexible medium for backups and for making the data more portable so they can be shared with colleagues and clients. This technology also can be used to augment local area network (LAN) servers.
In the late 1970s, when personal computers were just catching on, the standard 10megabyte (Mb) hard disks were sufficient to store most major applications, with ample room for data. In the ensuing years, as space demands grew, mostly because of the Windows environment, the hard disk standard in most new computers grew apace and it currently is about 1 gigabyte (Gb). But with programs and files continuing to get fatter, even that is not large enough. For example, the new Windows 95 operating system itself needs nearly 25 Mb of space and a typical suite of applications takes up another 75 Mb or so.
Not only are applications becoming more capacious but working files are getting fatter, too. Many today are loaded with graphics-heavy formatting, and some users even add sound and video clips to enhance their presentations. As a result, many users now demand hard disks of 2 or even 4 Gb. But for some, even hard disks with several gigabytes aren't enough. International Data Corp., market researchers, recognizing the strong demand for more storage space, forecasts that the market will grow 98% a year through the year 2000.
So what's a CPA who is squeezed for space to do?
As it turns out, there are many options--so many, in fact, that they exceed the scope of this article. As a result, we cover only the mainstream technologies that accountants are most likely to use now or in the immediate future. All of the products mentioned are available at local software or hardware retailers.
Aside from tips on solving the storage problem, the single most important insight to garner from this article is that lack of storage space should no longer be a problem, and your work should not be hampered by the size of your computer's hard disk.
Some of the auxiliary storage devices can do more than just provide a convenient place to pack away data. Because some are random-access storage mediums, using the same technology as your hard disk, applications stored on them can be run directly on your computer--with no need to first download them onto your hard disk, as would be necessary with tape storage. So now, instead of working on a cramped hard disk and risking a disk crash, you can store infrequently used programs on portable storage mediums and, when you need to run a program, just plug in the auxiliary drive, load the appropriate cartridge and you're in business.
Before considering the available hardware solutions, let's first examine how to solve the storage problem using software, which is less costly and more convenient in some applications.
Data compression. There are a handful of programs on the market that can compress data files and application programs by as much as 50%. A 20-Mb file, for example, will take only about 10 Mb of space on your hard disk. These programs all work in essentially the same way: They look for redundant instructions in the software application, index that code and then replace a long programming code with a short index code. All this is done on the fly, which means the zipping (compressing) and unzipping (uncompressing) are done automatically and behind the scenes. As soon as you evoke any program or file on your file on your compressed hard disk, the software automatically unzips and it is ready to work nearly instantly. Then, when you close it down, it automatically zips, returning to its compressed state. The early days of data compression were rife with horror stones of lost data or zipping that moved like cold molasses. But with today's fast processors, the action occurs so fast the process defies detection.
Windows 95 has such a program, called DriveSpace, that is built into its operating system and it's very easy to set up. If you don't use Window's 95, there are other software options, such as Stacker, a popular third-party software-compression program.
If compressing your entire hard disk makes you apprehensive or you don't need that much added space, there is an intermediate solution: zipping individual files or programs and storing them in compressed form either on a hard disk or on some other convenient medium. One of the most powerful compressing programs is WinZip. It comes in multiple versions: for DOS, Windows 3.x and Windows 95. The Windows 95 version of WinZip has convenient built-in wizards--software help agents that lead a user through the zipping and unzipping process.
Another program, CleanSweep, whose primary function is to remove extraneous instruction codes from a hard disk after an application is erased, also can be programmed to zip only infrequently used files or applications and restore them when you want to use them.
For many, file compression is sufficient to solve the cramped-space problem.
But other users must turn to auxiliary hardware to create more room. Here are some of the leading options.
Tape drives. In the 1980s, when computer users first realized that storing data on floppy disks was inefficient (since the highest capacity floppy holds a maximum of 1.4 Mb), about their only backup choice was tape. For many it was not a happy choice. Although tape remains one of the least expensive storage mediums--costing as little as a tenth of a cent per megabyte of stored data--it's frustratingly slow compared with hard disks or floppies. Worse, since the data are stored sequentially on tape--and cannot be accessed randomly--a program stored on that medium cannot run directly from the tape; it first must be downloaded to a hard disk, which is a random-access medium. And finding a single file stored on tape often requires more patience than most busy people have: The tape has to wind until it reaches the file's location.
However, there is a partial software solution that lets you find and handle files much as you would floppy disks. New programs for tape drives now come with a feature called installable file systems (IFS), which uses conventional computer commands to copy individual files from your hard disk to the tape and even to locate files already on the tape. However, the search still requires the tape drive to run sequentially until the file is found; and if the sought-after file is at the end of the tape, that search may take a bit of a wait.
Because tape is such a slowpoke, and for other reasons, computer administrators mostly schedule tape backups for late at night. And while there have been advances in search functions, tape's fundamental design relegates it to the turtle-pace category. Its two best features are its low cost and its ability to be erased and recorded innumerable times.
Another factor to consider if you plan to use tape is the medium's durability. Magnetic storage does not have a long life. Within five to seven years the magnetic charge that encodes the stored data begins to weaken to the point where it cannot be accessed reliably. Floppy disks, which also use magnetism to store data, suffer the same limitation.
The bottom line: For all the above reasons, it's wise to use tape (or floppies) only for periodic data backups. Don't plan to store the data for long-term archiving.
The most popular tape drives for standalone computers and workstations are those that use minicartridges: They are small, easy to transport and some hold as much as 4 Gb. If you're shopping for a tape drive, focus on products that use the new Travan technology; it appears to be becoming the industry standard. Its major assets are speed and backward compatibility--that is, it can read and write to older cartridges, a big advantage if you have a sizable investment in tapes.
For the LAN market, the choices are wider: regular cartridges, digital (called DAT in the industry) and eight-millimeter tape.
Setting up a tape drive--not difficult for a seasoned computer user--can be daunting for the novice. Iomega, one of the leading names in backup hardware, has just introduced a one-button backup device, the Ditto Easy 800. It's easy to install and use and can store up to 800 Mb on a single tape. For some users, that's enough capacity to store everything on their hard disks. The price is easy, too: $150 for the drive and $30 for each tape,
Most tape drives are bulky Not so the $500 Pereos. It's portable--running either on two AA batteries or with an AC adapter--and fits in a shirt pocket. Its tape cartridge (the size of a postage stamp) can store 1.25 Gb--the equivalent of 868 floppy disks--and costs about $29 each. The product comes loaded with a program that: tracks its stored data; thus, finding and updating files is a snap. But as with all tape systems, it's a slowpoke. However, because of its size and portability, it could be a handy companion for the data-laden, traveling CPA.
Removable cartridge drives. A few years ago a unique random-access magnetic backup device no bigger than a 35-millimeter camera appeared on the scene. Within weeks the Iomega Zip Drive created a sensation among computer mavens, and even today demand for the product outstrips supply. There even are stories of buyers offering bribes to be moved up on waiting lists for the drive. The Zip Drive costs about $200; and its proprietary disks (slightly larger than a regular 3.5-inch disk) cost about $20 and can store up to 100 Mb. The disks have become so popular that many users not only store data on them but also swap them with colleagues and clients.
Unlike many backup systems, the Zip Drive is particularly easy to install. While you can buy a version that plugs into a SCSI drive (a special electronic subsystem that must be installed inside a computer), buyers in the know are picking the version that easily plugs into the external parallel port---a plug common to nearly every computer. The SCSI version is more frequently used when it's to be installed internally; the internal version is somewhat faster than its external sibling, but it's riot portable.
Several products compete directly with the Zip Drive. The newest--and the one that's giving the Zip Drive a run for its money--is SyQuest's EZ 135 drive. Although slightly bigger and twice as heavy as the one-pound Zip Drive, the $240 EZ135 can store 135 Mb of data. Cartridges, which are about the size of CD-ROMs, cost about $20. The biggest advantage of the EZ135 is its speed. Although the Zip Drive can transfer data at a rate of about a megabyte a second, the EZ135 operates at twice that speed, making it comparable to a hard disk. But even more important, both drives operate fast enough to run applications without long hesitations.
In an attempt to keep its lead in this market, Iomega just introduced the Jaz Drive--a 1-Gb version of the Zip Drive that sells for about $500. And hot on Jaz's heels is a similar product from Pinnacle Micro, the $1,700 Apex, which holds a whopping 4.6 Gb.
As you can see from the number of new products being launched in this area, competition is red hot because the products are meeting a vital need of computer users. But as good as these removable drives are, they aD share two fundamental shortcomings. First, they use magnetic heads-- similar to a hard disk--which makes them vulnerable to data loss and limits their storage capacity. Also, they use proprietary cartridges, which means they are not interchangeable with other removable drives of this ilk, so you can share data only with colleagues who have the same make drive.
However, new technologies on the horizon will overcome these shortcomings, and we'll discuss them later.
ROLL YOUR OWN CDs
Everyone knows about CD-ROM (compact disk-read-only memory) drives, which are becoming standard on new computers. The CD-ROM uses a different technology: Instead of storing data magnetically, as with all the mediums mentioned so far, CD-ROMs use optical technology, in which a laser beam literally burns the code onto the surface of a disk. That gives CD-ROMs two advantages: Because the laser uses a much smaller wavelength than that of the magnetic charge, CD-ROMs can pack more data in a given space. Also, they are not susceptible to loss of data over time, to stray magnetic fields or to rough mechanical treatment. But they also have a serious drawback: Once data are recorded on such disks, they can't be erased or altered.
Until just a few years ago, the cost of the equipment to record on blank disks was beyond the reach of most users. But about six years ago, several manufacturers introduced drives that not only play the CD but also record it. Called a CD-R (for compact disk-recordable), early prices were in the $12,000 range. Since then, prices have plummeted to as little as $850 and the products are coming into the mainstream.
The CD-R can record digital data from your computer and then play it back--making it both an excellent backup medium and a way to create custom CDs. A typical CD can hold as much as 650 Mb. And that number will more than double as new compression technology makes its way into the marketplace.
For accountants, CD-Rs can be very useful. Custom databases and applications can be recorded on the disk and then distributed to colleagues and clients. In addition, when you need, say, an audit-secure, verifiable copy of financials, the CD-R fills the bill.
However, another technology that marries the magnetic and optical technology makes such disks erasable and rerecordable. Magneto-optical (MO) disks can be erased multiple times and reused. However, the price of erasability is noncompatibility, Because there is no single industry standard for MO disks, a disk made on one manufacturer's drive cannot be read on another make of drive. But if all you want to do is make customizable backup disks--and not exchange them with other users--the CD-R is a perfect choice. While MOs have a maximum storage capacity of 650 Mb, a modification of the technology, called phase-change dual/CD drives (also called PD/CD drives) holds as much as 4.6 Gb.
By year's end a new technology should reach the market that will allow you not only to record a standard CD but also to erase it and then rerecord. The new drives are called CD-Es, for compact disk-erasable. While not as fast as a hard disk or a floppy--but far faster than tape--they will be a handy way to back up your entire office data. Prices initially will be in the $1,000 to $1,500 range.
You can treat a CD-R or a CD-E the same way you'd treat a floppy disk--either to store data or to load applications. In a typical situation, you might not have enough room on your hard disk to keep a huge database or an infrequently used application. But with a CD-R or CD-E drive, you can customize a disk with whatever you please and then load it for later use or share it with anyone with a CD-ROM drive. It's no wonder that power users are replacing their CD-ROM drives with the slightly more expensive CD-Rs.
REMOVABLE HARD DISKS
Another option is to turn to an auxiliary removable hard disk. They come in several configurations: A portable device that plugs into a computer's parallel port or into special docking stations that can handle several such disk drives and one that installs in a empty bay inside your computer but can be easily removed.
Removable hard disks cost slightly more than comparable-size conventional hard disks. The advantage of adding a hard disk is speed: It typically outruns any of the other storage mediums mentioned in this article. Its one major drawback: While the removable disks are billed as portable devices, they can't survive rough handling as well as the other mediums.
As you can see, when your hard disk begins to get crowded, you don't have to ration space. There are many options for giving yourself more elbow room--whether you need it to store infrequently used applications, to archive data or to conduct those critical backups.
* MANY CPAS ARE discovering that, while their computer hard disks may have been large enough when they were first bought, now those same disks are bulging at the seams--a condition that could lead to a computer crash. There are options for solving that problem short of buying a new hard disk.
* THE OPTIONS INCLUDE CONVENIENT ways to back up data and to make the data more portable so they can be shared with colleagues and clients. Here are some options:
* Data compression: There are a handful of programs that can compress data files and application programs by as much as 50%. Windows 95 has one built into its operating system. If you don't run Win95, there are third-party compression programs that do the same thing.
* Tape drives: Although tape remains one of the least expensive storage mediums--costing as little as a tenth of a cent per megabyte of stored data--it's frustratingly slow compared with hard disks or floppies.
* Removable cartridge drives: These have become a hot item because they are both easy to use and portable. Their cartridges have become so popular that many users not only store data on them but also swap them with colleagues and clients.
* Recordable CDs: Recording digital data from your computer and then playing it back makes this both an excellent backup medium and a way to create custom CDs. But once recorded, these disks cannot be erased or altered.
* Magneto-optical CDs: Although these can be erased multiple times and reused, the price of erasability is noncompatibility. Because there is no single industry standard, an MO disk made on one manufacturer's drive cannot be read on another make of drive.
* CD-E: This new technology (compact-disk erasable) will start reaching the market by year's end. A CD-E drive can create a standard CD and then erase it and record again.
STANLEY ZAROWIN is a senior editor on the Journal. Mr. Zarowin is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.
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|Title Annotation:||computer memory|
|Publication:||Journal of Accountancy|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1996|
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