Unlocking Data Storage

CD-ROM is becoming the storage method of choice, while new products seek to put storage control in PC users' hands

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manage an overwhelming amount of data from planetary probes exploring the solar system and from other space-related projects. Surprisingly, they use a simple storage technology, CD-ROM, to maintain their databases filled with mapping, filming, soil sampling and atmospheric testing information.

It's not all stored on a mainframe, as it would have been in the past. A UNIX-compatible CD-ROM system made by Young Minds Inc., a Redland, Calif., contractor, is used to record and transfer data. The disks are shipped to scientists at universities across the United States.

Working with many value-added resellers and companies such as Eastman Kodak Co., Young Minds is aggressively targeting the federal government with its CD-ROM recording technology, presenting it as a tool to reduce the cost of sharing scientific data. This is a pitch to which cash-strapped federal agencies from NASA to the National Institutes of Health are increasingly receptive, according to executives at technology providers and value-added resellers. The technologies are changing the way data storage is viewed strategically on the federal level. What's more, the continuing decline in prices for CD-ROM and other storage products hasn't hurt resellers such as Aspen Systems Corp., Washington, D.C., CHI Corp., CACI and others.

"With the movement toward the paperless environment, CD technology is rapidly becoming the storage medium of choice in the federal market," says Dan Carter, a spokesman for Smart Storage, an Andover, Mass.-based maker of software for CD-ROM, which is working with 25 distributors to expand the value-added reseller channel. "This is due to the vast amount of information which can be stored on a CD-ROM at little cost."

A Cheap Storage Solution

The Defense Printing Service also is buying into CD-ROM storage. When Mike Cocchiola, the agency's director, addressed a federal imaging symposium, he reiterated the Pentagon's rationale for going from a paper-based document management system to the CD-ROM.

It costs the Navy, Cocchiola said, $29 to produce each ship manual. But manuals stored on CD-ROM are much more cost-effective. Under the Pentagon's ADMAPS -- or Automated Document Management and Publishing System -- each disk costs only $9 to make. Each CD-ROM contains up to 138 manuals. "Under the traditional paper-based systems, it cost $29 per manual, multiplied by 138, for a total cost of $4,002, compared to just $9 for the new imaging solution," says Cocchiola. "Not only is there a significant return on investment with ADMAPS in manual authoring and production, but the storage of these manuals no longer requires a vast amount of space, as compared to the storage of CD-ROMs."

Another agency that has adopted this point of view is the Federal National Mortgage Association. Fannie Mae says its new pilot program will successfully decrease third-party processing time for mortgages from the current 60 to 90 days to just two days.

Fannie Mae announced its MortgageLinks pilot and its Fannie Maps Plus reinvention in April during the Mortgage Bankers Association National Secondary Mortgage Market Conference in Chicago.

A new addition to Fannie's MORNETPlus group of programs, MortgageLinks will use electronic data interchange technology to provide lower cost electronic links to allow lenders to connect with many mortgage industry service providers. This will improve efficiency and lower the cost of originating and servicing mortgages, according to Fannie Mae sources.

The mortgage insurance benefit claim program is the first supported by MortgageLinks and reportedly will connect lenders to both the Department of Housing and Urban Development and private mortgage insurance companies. The pilot began in April and includes four unnamed lenders from across the country. Participants will submit EDI mortgage insurance benefit claims using third-party Internet World Wide Web browsers over Fannie Mae's secure network.

"In the future, MortgageLinks will provide lenders and brokers with the ability to select a variety of mortgage services," the agency said in a statement, "including appraisals, credit, title, investor reporting, flood determination, delegated mortgage insurance underwriting, fraud detection and hazard insurance renewals."

A Challenging Market

The continuing proliferation of CD-ROM drives has created a new challenge for drive manufacturers to market their products competitively.

In 1984, when the first CD-ROM drives were introduced to the market, the primary challenge was simply getting to the market ahead of everyone else. However, as the industry matured, new factors entered the buying equation. Better quality, features and adherence to the multimedia PC specification created by Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., have become primary influences in buyer decisions on CD-ROM drives.

Simplifying Storage

For 25 years, text timesharing companies have provided access to massive amounts of information in machine-readable form. Until recently, high-capacity, multigigabyte storage was the domain of the mainframe. Companies such as Dialog Information Services, Mountain View, Calif., and Mead Data Central, Dayton, Ohio, warehouse data in central, very secure mainframe environments.

Timesharing companies were criticized for not being more PC-like, for not offering images or combined databases, and for ignoring customer calls for pricing reform, database consistency and better quality control. But in a mainframe environment built on time-tested architectures, some system and user needs simply could not be met.

For example, it was difficult to add correction records to on-line databases and implement user-friendly, graphical interfaces. As the size of databases increased, basic housekeeping became a larger and larger task consuming more available system resources.

Federal PC users have a steadily growing familiarity with electronic information, great adaptability and a healthy dose of impatience. Most cram information into the space available in their personal computers or on their organization's system. When more storage becomes accessible, users find new things to put on their electronic shelves. Mass storage works like a new superhighway: Traffic expands to fill the open space and the new road is choked quickly with cars and trucks. More and larger applications crowd the new storage area as well, creating even greater storage requirements.

What sparks this thirst for mass storage? The need for space for large machine-readable files is coming from virtually every market sector, especially the federal government. Researchers and engineers in the storage business are trying to respond to a demand created by surging computerization, powerful new software and mounting megabytes of data.

For instance, the latest version of Aldus' PageMaker for Windows, a popular desktop publishing program, can easily create files that overwhelm a 40MB hard disk. Just a few years ago, a 20MB hard disk seemed a generous amount of storage space. It was a luxury.

According to research conducted by the Gallup Organization Inc., 80MB hard drives are now standard.

"Our customers want big, fast hard drives. They need the space for programs, data, graphics, images and digitized sound," said Joseph Sung, president of Boulder, Colo.-based Everware, a storage products company that sells to the government. "There is no limit to the storage demands customers have."

A Wave of New Products

In the last five or six years, remarkable storage products have come to market with increasing speed. These storage devices fall into several broad categories:

  • Backup storage. These are storage devices that are used to archive data. Archived data on floppy disks, for example, are a form of insurance, allowing important files to be restored if critical data is erased or lost.

  • Reference storage. These devices allow large amounts of data to be placed on media that can replace, complement or supplement microfilm or paper. InfoTrac CD-ROMs are an example of this storage category.

  • On-line storage. These devices allow a user to read and write data on the storage media. The information is available to users in real-time from a hard disk in a computer or linked to the PC on a network.

More and more storage devices in all three categories share a common attribute: new, high-capacity storage devices are rapidly migrating from the locked, air-conditioned computer rooms to the users' desks. In the '80s, storage power rested with MIS. New developments in mass storage promise to weaken users' mainframe handcuffs.

Ready access to storage allows the decentralization of database use, giving that control to individuals or departments. High-capacity mass storage equips people to shape electronic information to meet their needs.

For considerably less than $10,000, one can build a local information "factory" by setting up a network of several PCs and installing a 500MB hard disk.

Another consequence of mass storage innovation is the weakened grip of the timesharing companies on access to commercial or governmental databases. A library (public, academic, special, medical or research) can use PCs, high-capacity hard disks and a mix of readily available storage devices to mount databases on CD-ROM or on hard disks. Each library can address such issues as cost, access rights and fees directly, cutting out the timesharing company or middle person.

Many on-line database producers and timesharing companies see mass storage as an electronic wall flower at a flashy high-tech dance. Customer focus groups wail, "Give me more full text. I want access to all databases on a related subject at one time. I need the pictures, charts and graphs from the original document."

Not surprisingly, some innovative timesharing customers see mass storage as the means to take data matters into their own hands. It is no secret that information consumers are asking for more -- more data, sound, graphics and video along with text and numbers. Customers want local access and control of customized databases. A sharp surge in the availability of different types of mass storage devices and falling prices for storage hardware are rewriting the rules of the electronic information game.

What's Being Used?

To aid those who think about mass storage as only a hard disk in a PC, there are different types of storage media that are being used in the federal market.

  • Magnetic media. This includes the 3 1/2- and 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, hard disks and tapes in cassettelike cartridges and on open reels.

  • Optical media. This includes any storage device that encodes data using laser light. Most optical media look similar to the audio CDs found in record stores. (Optical storage devices record data on a thin film by burning microscopic holes in the film's substrate with a laser. Then data are read by a laser device that notes the presence or absence of holes, called "pits" and "lands.")

  • Hybrid media. This includes storage devices that use a combination of laser and magnetic technology to store information. The media can be formed into disks or tape. Mass storage devices can be fixed or removable.

The most common fixed device is the hard disk found in most personal computers. Removable storage media can be taken from a drive's case and put on a shelf or used in another machine. There are information "robots," or jukeboxes, that store various media and automatically insert them into a drive when information is needed. Mass storage can be:

  • On-line, ready to use immediately like DIALOG databases and the Web.

  • Off line, stored on a shelf like backup tapes.

  • Nearline: media placed in a device that automatically inserts the correct tape or disk in the drive and then removes it when the user no longer needs the data. It is from the mainframe world of drum storage and open reel tape that today's rich array of storage options has grown. A mainframe today is just as likely to have a digital audio tape device as a PC-based local area network. A power user with a Pentium machine or a hopped up Sun workstation will already have a CD-ROM drive, and will probably be shopping for high-capacity magneto-optical or R-DAT devices, which is a form of digital audio tape.

The development curve for mass storage is like a Trident missile. Many computer users would prefer that the take-off of innovation in mass-storage be slower, more gradual, like a DC-3's. Mass storage is a hodgepodge of acronyms, new techniques, incompatible media, tremendous competition and almost no standards.

Rapidly Evolving Technology

The technology of mass storage is evolving rapidly. The public relations blitz for CD-ROM and other optical technology has overwhelming information about important developments in magnetic storage. Recognize that capacities of hard disks and tapes have been advancing rapidly.

A look at Young Minds CD recording technology shows just what is cutting edge in the government market today. In recent weeks, Young Minds announced UltraStudio, a CD recording product that combines UNIX-based CD recording systems with mass storage capacities.

The product, being sold aggressively by Aspen Systems into the federal market, is a jukebox that can handle upward of 500 discs. The four-speed drive sends a pre-mastered set of data to a CD studio controller; premastering runs in the background.

Another technology that is making inroads in the CD world is from Smart Storage.

SmartCD Archive for Windows NT runs directly on a Windows NT server, providing transparent access to virtually unlimited amounts of data stored on a CD. By combining a CD drive, a tower and a jukebox with multitiered caching, performance and access time is increased.

"With a 79 percent increase in spending for Windows NT servers from 1994 to 1995, the demand for a Windows NT CD storage solution is paramount," said Gary Brach, president of Smart Storage. "Smart Storage is addressing this demand by providing customers with high-performance, easy-to-use software that runs directly on a PC.

Interestingly, Smart Storage recently announced a new Partner Program for value-added resellers to advocate the use of CD-Recordable technology. The company is working with NSM, a leading jukebox manufacturer, to begin a national seminar series on the benefits of CD-R technology.

Herndon, Va.-based Sterling Software Storage Management Division, however, recognizes that with new software, new hardware is required. And that provides another opportunity for value-added resellers to sell in the federal market. SAMS:Disk 9.0 contains many new enhancements providing users with additional capabilities for the implementation of archive, backup and restore in their environment. Release 9.0 also upgrades disks to support new devices and operating system changes introduced by IBM and STK, a leading maker of storage equipment in Caznovia, N.Y.

The new application-level backup capabilities and DSCL-based Recover language processing are the highlights of release 9.0.

The DSCL-based disaster recovery component supports batch recovery command specifications using Disk's Data Storage Command Language, according to company officials.

The new DSCL Recover provides an extensive specification language that gives users more criteria and conditions for the definition of data sets to be recovered. These recover changes make SAMS:Disk data set recovery features more powerful and easier to use than in previous versions of the product.

New application-level backup features enable customers to manage application-related data sets based on their organization's unique disaster recovery specifications. Application-level backup and restore features greatly enhance SAMS:Disk flexibility in disaster recovery implementation.

For application backup, storage administrators specify named lists of data sets or high-level qualifiers to establish application-related sets of data.

These named application lists may be referenced in new DSCL-based recover language to recover one or more application sets of data. This simplifies the recovery process and eliminates the hundreds of commands previously required to restore each data set in an application.

With this new ability to back up and restore entire applications and the associated data sets, SAMS:Disk 9.0 can be implemented to enhance the disaster recovery capabilities of other leading storage management systems.

Disc drives are also important to storage -- and provide another opportunity for value-added resellers to sell to the government. A spokesman for San Jose, Calif.-based Seagate Technology said the company is working with many value-added resellers and distributors, such as Merisel, to sell to the federal government. The Hawk family of drives is a product that is catching customers' eyes, apparently. The 2XL provides formatted capacities for up to 2.15 gbytes, with SCSI 3 SPI and SCAN plug-and-play compliance. "They're being positioned as an ideal solution for high-end desktop computers, workstations, network file servers, mini-computers and disc array applications, requiring small form-factor solutions," said a company spokesman. "Automatic thermal compensation provides for uninterrupted data rates.

Selling to the Federal Government

What are the strategies that federal systems integrators and value-added resellers are using to sell into the government channel? According to officials at Washington, D.C. area companies such as Aspen, CACI and Aeon, little product differentiation was initially provided, nor was it perceived to be important.

Then CD-ROM manufacturers had replaced their "race to the market" strategies with the beginnings of a full-blown price war.

As the mass-market reseller channels were helping to drive this price war, other resellers were also placing price pressures on manufacturers.

Large volume application developers and service bureaus were now in a position to effectively bargain for the best possible deals. Often they were adding in-house staff to evaluate products and negotiate reseller contracts.

Because they had so many products to choose from, it became simply a question of price and product availability for differentiation.

While this was good for the industry as a whole, helping to decrease end-user prices for drives, it became clear to drive manufacturers that price alone could not continue to be their only differentiation.

"The next step in product differentiation became quality," said one official with a value-added reseller. "Within reseller organizations, quality is a key element. Whether that organization is a service bureau or an application provider, they do not want or need the headaches associated with hardware service and support. Because many specialized CD-ROM applications require the packaging of a drive with the application, it is important that the hardware aspect of that application be as trouble-free as possible."

This differentiation strategy was instrumental in not only improving the quality of CD-ROM drives in general, but it also helped to solidify the positions of some of the drive providers.

Having achieved stabilization in the pricing and quality of CD-ROM drives, the product differentiation challenge has once again presented itself.

The final opportunity for drive manufacturers to differentiate their products is through enhanced features and functions. Fortunately, a number of technological developments have come along in recent months to assist with this effort.

The primary technological advancement driving product differentiation today is the evolution of multimedia applications.

"Drive manufacturers have made impressive progress in improving access time and data transfer rates. While this has been done primarily for the multimedia market, it benefits nearly all CD-ROM applications. Again, there is a race to the market with these new, improved, faster drives," said another value-added reseller.

What have these changing strategies meant to federal users? For the most part, they have meant continuing improvements in the price/value ratio for CD-ROM drives. In the near future, however, they may also bring confusion and potential customer dissatisfaction.

The confusion lies in the ability (or inability) of manufacturers to effectively communicate their differentiation and the added value they provide. In the early days, an individual CD-ROM drive purchaser had a limited number of resources and options available to them. The majority of drive manufacturers were courting the large application providers, service bureaus and resellers.

Federal users who received drives as part of an application package typically received whatever drive the application provider had chosen for them. As long as the drive provided the functionality required by the application, everyone was happy. However, this limited the installed base of drives to fairly basic functionality, as most application developers and distributors were primarily concerned with keeping user prices at a minimum.

As users attempt to add titles to their growing library of CD-ROM products, they may experience incompatibilities between drives and application products. It is when users look to upgrade their current system that the problems begin.

Users have two options. "They can review a scattering of products available to them through retail or catalog outlets and select what they believe to be the best drive, based upon the information provided them. Or, they can attempt to review all the drives on the market and then look for a reseller outlet who can provide them with that particular drive," said a value-added reseller.

"Either way, this entails a tremendous amount of work and technical skill to identify and purchase the correct drive. What typically happens, I suspect, is that potential customers are confused by all the options available to them and end up purchasing based on price alone."

While this may have been acceptable when all drives were basically the same, it is not to the advantage of either the customer or the manufacturer of enhanced products today. Value-added resellers indicate that Sony has been extremely aggressive in penetrating virtually every potential reseller channel. These resellers often compete directly with Sony and with one another in bidding situations such as government contracts.

Because Sony is the ultimate supplier, it becomes impossible for an aggressive reseller to compete with them in a bidding situation.

Because drive pricing from the manufacturer is driven by volume, resellers are motivated to seek out other volume distributors for drive products. This means their sales efforts are often in competition with the direct sales force of the manufacturer.

"Obviously, a reseller will be unable to compete on price alone and must look for ways to add value to the drive products. Sometimes we are effective in offering service and support, in addition to aggressive pricing, when we are in an environment where service and support are essential to the customer," said a federal market value-added reseller.

However, sometimes they are not. In some instances, price becomes the only decision point, potentially cheating users of valuable features, functions, service and support.

Other manufacturers, such as Laser Magnetic Storage International Co., Englewood, Colo., assure their resellers that they will not compete with them. This means that if an application developer selects their drive to bundle with their application software, they will never face a customer who elects to buy the same drive from a catalog supplier at a discounted price.

"Conceptually, this strategy allows someone who is bundling hardware to potentially premium price the drive component, thus not providing the customer with the best price/value ratio," concluded a value-added reseller.

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