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The future of PC storage

The future of PC storage

The ever-increasing demand for storage is one of the dominant characteristics of information technology. As applications grow larger, networking becomes more prevalent, and data becomes an increasingly valuable commodity. In recent times the range of options has broadened considerably so that users are confronted with a bewildering array of devices and technologies to choose from. Apart from deciding what size hard drive is required, both home and commercial PC buyers are now being asked to consider CD-ROM, CD-Recordable, Tape drives, Magneto-Optical (MO) drives, "Zip" drives and other devices. To compound the problem a whole range of new technologies, including CD-Erasable and DVD drives, are expected to reach the market over the next 12 to 24 months.

Recent trends in storage

The most obvious shift in the PC storage market in recent years has been the adoption of the CD-ROM drive. Our research shows that CD-ROM drive shipments have more than doubled each year up to and including 1995. The majority are being delivered pre-installed in the PC and the huge worldwide volumes have allowed prices to be reduced substantially, in turn making them accessible to more buyers. The software industry has been keeping up with this trend by gradually shifting distribution of all types of software to CD.

1994 saw the CD-ROM drive become an all but mandatory requirement on new PC purchases destined for the home consumer market. The adoption rate has also been steady, but far less dramatic, in other market segments, with the corporate market resisting wholesale standardisation on CD-ROM drives for the desktop, largely because of the flexibility offered by LAN solutions.

Hard drive storage capacities are rising as they get faster, denser, and cheaper per megabyte. In the second half of 1995 new PCs in the commercial sector typically had 540 to 640Mb drives and home PCs were often closer to the 1Gb mark. With PC processors, memory, operating systems and connectivity constantly being upgraded, increases to hard drive capacities have almost gone by unnoticed, but the pace of development has been exceptional.

Magneto Optical drives, particularly the 3.5" form factor, have experienced sharp growth in recent years, proving popular where flexible, high-capacity storage is required for backup, image and document management and in publishing and design environments.

Another high-growth area recently has centred around drives from SyQuest and Iomega. With a 1995 street price of around $350, and 100Mb cartridges costing around $30 each, the Iomega Zip drive is proving popular with the small business and consumer markets, primarily for backup purposes.

The driving forces

The major drivers of the PC storage market are:

An increasing dependence on electronic information and information services, driving up the value of information as a commodity, and thus the need for secure, reliable storage with reasonable access speeds.

Limitations in existing, "standard" PC storage devices. In particular the capacity of the 3.5" floppy drive and the non-rewritability of CD-ROM devices has highlighted an enormous opportunity for manufacturers to replace one or both of them with a new standard.

The incorporation of sound, image and video into documents, and the growing sophistication of "everyday" PC applications such as spreadsheets, word processors and entertainment titles.

A growing backup market in both stand- alone and networked environments. As hard drives and networks grow larger, and become a more integral part of day-to-day business, storage devices that have both capacity and fast transfer capabilities are becoming more important. Tape drives are still predominant in this market because of their low cost.

Increasing adoption of electronic media in publishing, layout, design and artwork.

Falling prices, making higher-capacity devices more accessible.

Additionally, it can be argued that a circular process is taking place, with higher available capacities encouraging users to take less interest in "cleaning up" hard drives and software vendors reducing time and effort spent on code optimisation and incorporating longer lists of features and "extras" (eg clip art), in their products.

Critical success factors

The ultimate success of any new storage technology depends on a few, critical factors:

Standards: While the network has become the best medium for sharing or exchanging information, almost all PC users still need to interchange data on a regular basis via removable storage media. Regardless of the destination this is expected to be achievable without delay or difficulty. Standards can be achieved by several manufacturers agreeing on common formats and capacities or by one vendor getting enough product into the market to establish a "critical mass".

Rewritability: Write-once technology will remain adequate for archiving, but little else over the coming years. With other options becoming available, users will no longer be prepared to pay for a CD-ROM drive which can only be used to read pre-distributed software.

Cost: Regardless of the benefits, new devices will need to be affordable, ideally to such an extent that they can be built into most new PCs.

Size: To be truly universal, particularly in succeeding either the CD-ROM or the floppy diskette drive, a storage device should be small enough to be installed in a notebook PC format as well as the standard desktop bay.

Backward compatibility: The avenue to establishing immediate acceptance - backward compatibility - allows a steady introduction of the new technology without compromising anyone's existing investment.

Speed, accuracy and reliability: Regardless of cost and convenience, any new technology must deliver acceptably fast access times and be considered reliable enough to store mission-critical information without errors (within stringent tolerances) over the course of its life.

Outlook

In fixed storage, no successor to the magnetic hard disk drive has emerged. Increases in density, and thus capacity, are being brought to market in an almost continuous stream of product announcements, seemingly without limitation, and magnetic drives continue to offer the fastest access times.

In removable storage the displacement of the CD-ROM drive with a true, rewritable storage product is inevitable. The replacement will be the first rewritable device to reach the market backed by the large manufacturers and incorporating backward compatibility with read-only CDs.

The replacement of the 3.5" diskette drive is less clear. Iomega's Zip drive, currently popular in the stand-alone market, is let down by a lack of support from other vendors, making it a difficult to achieve mainstream acceptance where standards are so crucial. The 3.5" MO drive is far better supported and already selling well into design and publishing environments or as a flexible alternative to tape backup. As this technology begins to mature and prices come down further, MO is beginning to look like the strongest contender.


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