Oct 12 2006

Higher-capacity Backup Alternatives May Mean The End Of Floppy Disks

Many school districts say goodbye to floppy disks and replace them with flash memory drives, CDs, CD-RWs and DVDs. Others put LANs, WANs and file servers in place for their data-distribution needs.

They had a good run, but it appears the once-mighty floppy disks are going the way of one-room schoolhouses. “In my network, we’re discouraging the use of floppies,” says Dick Mehlhorn, network administrator for Supervisory Administrative Unit (SAU) 41, which consists of six schools in Hollis and Brookline, N.H. The problem: inconsistencies among PCs at schools and at homes. “We’ve found that if you format a floppy on computer ‘A,’ oftentimes computer ‘B’ can’t read it, even when the PC configurations are identical,” Mehlhorn explains.

SAU 41 is part of a growing trend among educators to bid farewell to the floppy. For years this mature removable storage technology has provided an inexpensive way to transfer data via “sneaker net” from PC to PC or from desktop machine to portable computer.

Since the earliest PCs, which used dual floppy drives and disks almost twice as big as today’s, personal computers have routinely shipped with at least one internal floppy drive. But, in recent years, as LANs, the Internet and higher-capacity removable-storage alternatives gained increasing popularity and decreased in price, the lowly floppy steadily lost its champions.

Earlier last year, some major PC vendors announced they would stop shipping internal floppy drives as standard equipment. In the future, computer users who insist on floppy drives will probably buy external devices connected via a computer’s USB interface.

In addition to the compatibility problems, the 1.4MB capacities of standard floppies, once seen as expansive in a world dominated by small text files, now seem meager for faculty and students who regularly store burgeoning PowerPoint presentations and space-hungry graphics files. In place of floppies, schools are now finding a range of storage choices that may not offer rock-bottom prices but are still economical enough to accommodate tight school budgets. (See infographic on page 32.)

What has displaced the floppy? For some schools, their mesh of LANs, WANs and file servers are carrying out the floppy’s traditional data-distribution duties. Faculty and students simply save their files to dedicated folders on a server, which provides easy access to the information from any PC authorized to tap into the network. To read the same file at home, you simply send it to your personal e-mail address, without any doubts about whether the file is readable on another computer.

While convenient, network storage alone can’t meet every data-distribution need, so a growing number of schools are relying on handy portable drives that store data on flash memory and attach to PCs via USB connections. Others use rewritable CDs, or CD-RWs, which can function as huge 650MB floppy replacements. Some schools are eyeing a third alternative: rewritable DVDs, which are becoming more popular now that a nagging standards war is being settled.

“Rewritable CDs and flash memory drives are really the top two removable media choices today,” says Denise De Leon, senior analyst for storage at market researcher iSuppli in El Segundo, Calif. “They offer both capacity and speed advantages over floppies, as well as greater reliability of the media.” Systems vendors are now shipping bootable CDs and flash drives, further reducing the floppy’s usefulness, she adds.

Flash Forward

Dubbed “thumb drives” because of their size and shape, portable flash memory drives are becoming the darlings of the storage industry. Now that both desktop and portable computers include USB interfaces as a standard component, thumb drives can plug into a wide variety of computers and transfer files without any up-front formatting or other preparation. Along with using e-mail, they’re “a primary way of transferring files,” says Dr. Darrin Hartness, chief technology officer for the Cleveland County Schools in Shelby, N.C.

The school district’s flash drive initiative gained momentum recently when the district launched a laptop program that gave portables to about 90 teachers and provided more than 300 for student use. Because most portables are now configured without floppy drives, the district decided to give teachers their own flash drives.

“Floppies are so unreliable, and their space is so limited,” Hartness explains. “And flash drives are so portable. I can put one on my key chain and carry 128MB of storage capacity in my pocket.”

Although the Cleveland County district chose 128MB drives, a wide range of capacity choices add to the flexibility of flash drives. Schools can choose from drives as small as 16MB and as large as 1GB. The most popular capacities are 128MB and 256MB, iSuppli’s De Leon says. Street prices are about $50 and $100, respectively. “They’re very good price points to encourage mass adoption,” she observes.

Current sales bear this out. Although numbers are difficult to break out solely for the education market, total flash drive revenues reached $306 million on shipments of 13 million units in 2003, more than double the $135.6 million recorded a year earlier, according to technology researcher Gartner in Stamford, Conn. By 2007, revenues could reach $1.73 billion on unit shipments of 59.1 million, a compound annual growth rate of 66 percent over five years, says Joseph Unsworth, a Gartner analyst specializing in semiconductor memory. Over that period, the most popular drive capacity will increase to 604MB, he adds.

Although dropping prices and greater awareness of USB flash drives contributed to 2003’s strong numbers, the market is still in its infancy, Unsworth believes. This means educators may continue to see new applications develop for the technology. “Book distributors may be interested in [flash drive] e-books,” Unsworth says. “It is possible to have an entire semester’s worth of books and syllabi on a drive that plugs into a notebook.”

Mega Floppies

Compared to venerable floppy disks, the 650MB available on today’s rewritable CDs represent a massive amount of data capacity. And with disk prices now at about 70 cents each, schools don’t have to pay a premium for all this extra storage. Revenues for combination drives (ones that read and write CDs but only read DVDs) were about $2.5 billion in 2003, up from $2.3 billion the year before. The trend will continue this year, with revenues expected to reach $3.2 billion, according to iSuppli.

Combining the pricing advantages of both CD-RW drives, now around $90, and the media, many schools see this as a mature technology ready to fulfill today’s storage needs. For example, some New Hampshire teachers are using CD-RW to save and archive biology projects that collect massive amounts of human physiology data. Each spring, the teachers lead a climb up Mt. Lafayette, a peak in the state’s famous White Mountain range. At predetermined stops on the ascent and descent, students stop to measure and record their heart and respiration data, which ends up in spreadsheets and text reports. Later, students compile their findings and create PowerPoint presentations.

CD-RWs not only provide the space to hold all of this information, they also accommodate plans to use CD duplicators so teachers can make multiple copies and distribute the projects to future classes, Mehlhorn says. Similarly, the school plans to use CD-RWs to store digital photos of classes, theater productions and sporting events.

On the Horizon

As the increasing popularity and decreasing cost of combination CD-RW/DVD drives suggest, DVDs eventually may become a major contender in removable storage. iSuppli expected DVD vendors to ship more than 17 million recordable drives in 2003, garnering revenues of nearly $1.5 billion. Over the next year, shipments and revenues could increase to 33 million and $2.6 billion, respectively.

As rewritable DVD technology completes its transition from leading-edge to ubiquitous, more schools will consider it as a higher-capacity replacement for CD-RW. DVDs can pack 4.7GB of data on typical disks, more than seven times as much as their CD counterparts. A standard exists for dual-sided recordings that can boost capacities to 9.4GB; however, these disks aren’t widely available.

Two issues contribute to DVD’s slow acceptance as a removable storage alternative. The first is a lingering recording-standards battle that has yet to guarantee that disks burned on one manufacturer’s drive will automatically work on a competing drive. Two main standards exist—one that uses a dash (DVD-RW) and another that uses a plus sign (DVD+RW) to label the products. Because both camps include major vendors, neither has been able to gain dominance. Fortunately, a number of vendors sell drives that support both standards.

Relatively high prices, for both drives and disks, remain a second stumbling block for DVDs in the education market. Although the price difference between combo drives and rewritable DVD drives is inconsequential, there is a significant difference in media costs. Rewritable DVD disks sell for more than $3 each, a budget-straining premium over 70-cent CDs. CD-RW offers one other major advantage over its newer cousin: faster performance. CD-RW drives rated at 52x are now available, while the fastest rewritable DVD drives run at a fraction of that speed. As rewritable DVD technology matures, these price/performance differences will shrink and capacities will become the key decision criterion. But, for most school districts today, recordable DVDs point the way to a future that has yet to arrive.

Life After DVDs

Where does optical drive technology go after DVD? For the Chinese government and a group of that country’s OEMs, the answer is EVD, or Enhanced Versatile Discs. Although specifications are still sketchy, proponents say EVD will offer higher capacities and native support for high-definition video. Analysts also see the nebulous technology as a way for China, a leading producer of DVD drives, to circumvent profit-pinching royalty payments now being paid to the Japanese companies that developed DVD standards.

“Various announcements about launch dates and product introductions keep slipping, and details about technological advantages have been unspecific,” says Denise De Leon, senior analyst for storage at market researcher iSuppli in El Segundo, Calif. “That said, there were some EVD players shown at an announcement made by Chinese OEMs and government bodies [last November].”

Commercial drives are expected to reach local China markets sometime this year. In the meantime, EVD is already facing competition. Two DVD giants, Toshiba and NEC, recently gained approval of their advanced DVD format, known as HD DVD from the DVD Forum, an international electronics consortium. Other DVD heavyweights, including Sony and Philips Electronics, are pushing their own alternative format, called Blu-ray. For now, none of the groups have announced details about a possible rewritable version of their next-generation DVD formats, a requirement for any of them to become removable-storage contenders.

Removable Storage Bargains

As capacities increase, the per-megabyte costs for new storage alternatives drop.

Technology | Capacity | Drive Cost | Media Cost | Cost per Megabyte3

Floppy disks | 1.4MB | $40 | 20 cents | $29

Flash Memory Drives | 128MB1 | $50 | N/A | 39 cents

CD-RW2 | 650MB | $87 | 70 cents | 13 cents

Rewritable DVD | 4.7GB | $90 | $3 | Less than 1 cent

1Available capacities range from 16MB to 1GB

2Numbers quoted are for combination drives, which offer CD-RW and read-only DVD

3Drive and media combined N/A= Not applicable