FCW@20: Reporting on storage, then and now

FCW looks back at a technology briefing

Alan Joch’s article on storage in this issue is in sharp contrast to the 1994 article on optical storage that we found in our archives, when Federal Computer Week was only seven years old.

Back then, our tech briefings were primers on new technologies that agencies were only beginning to use. The federal employees we interviewed were often the ones who had bought the first Sony jukeboxes or some of the original write-once, read-many drives. When our storage coverage touched on technical integration challenges, we discovered that each one is different.

We’re 20 years old now, and we like to think our articles tap the deep smarts that many federal users, technology analysts and chief information officers have today about information technology.

Agency interest in optical jukeboxes alive and well
By Jerry Lazar
Published on May 30, 1994

Information is the lifeblood of most federal operations. Yet the sheer volume of data available to agency users can make that information almost useless. Certainly, it can paralyze a computer system.

One remedy sought by federal buyers is optical jukeboxes, robotic devices that handle optical disks by removing them from shelves and inserting them into disk drives.

Jukeboxes today are used for near-line storage, backup and archival and document management.

In several projects, the government has stored terabytes of data on optical disks and left them for easy access in a high-capacity jukebox.

Now the government’s requirements are changing. There is still demand for high-end, high-capacity units, but some applications are calling for modestly sized jukeboxes containing a “mere” 20G of data.

Jukebox offerings
Today’s optical jukeboxes come in three flavors, reflecting the size and capabilities of the drives. The oldest are the large-capacity write-once, read-many (WORM) jukeboxes introduced in the late 1980s. These units generally feature 12-inch platters and offer terabyte-plus capacity.

“The 12-inch WORM…has been a long-term staple in the government’s eyes for storing records permanently,” said Scott Blum of storage vendor Pinnacle Micro. Eastman Kodak offers a 14-inch disk.

The second type of jukebox is a multifunction system featuring drives for both WORM and erasable disks. These jukeboxes, which start with storage capacities of about 20G, peak at about half a terabyte of storage.

“The smaller form factor is for the updatable, erasable market,” said Robert Campbell, product marketing manager of mass storage products at Eastman Kodak. “Its applications include backup of text files, imaging, [computer-aided design] and so forth as well as the traditional source document files.”

The third and newest type is CD-ROM jukeboxes, which are about a year old. CD-ROM drives are slower than optical drives, which are slower than their magnetic counterparts.

But with so much information being disseminated via CD-ROM today, and with the federal government the single largest provider of CD-ROM titles, these jukeboxes are eyed with enthusiasm by many as shared-network devices.

“It’s an evolving market,” said Jim Moore, director of the Integrated Storage Systems Marketing Department at Sony Computer Peripheral Products. “It is going after the low end of the market that needs permanent storage. If you need to do 10G to 15G of storage, you could do document imaging on a 10- to 15-disk CD recordable jukebox.”

Federal demand
With their huge data-handling responsibilities, agencies have helped drive the optical jukebox market.

Early on, most jukeboxes were used to store images rather than data. The Patent and Trademark Office was “a pioneer in production use of CD-ROM technology,” said Gil Van Schoor, vice president of sales and marketing at vendor ATG Cygnet.
The intelligence community also was an early adopter of the technology for photo imaging and document management, Van Schoor said.

From the beginning, agency users have been attracted to optical jukeboxes for several reasons:
  • Price/performance, because the systems are less expensive than hard disk and faster than tape.
  • Capacity, because it is much higher than any other form of backup.
  • Ruggedness of the media.
“That’s the main reason why federal [users] like optical,” said Pinnacle’s Blum. “The safety of the data. A lot of government people must archive for up to 30 years…. They can’t take the chance of data loss.”

Federal users
The reasons for buying jukeboxes have not changed much since NASA bought one of the first Sony jukeboxes for its Goddard Space Flight Center in the late 1980s. “We had a large archive of satellite data, over 7 1/2 years’ worth, sitting on 30,000 magnetic tapes in a warehouse,” recalls Gene Feldman, an oceanographer-turned-data systems manager at Goddard.

“We switched [to optical] for a couple of reasons,” he said. “The data were essentially inaccessible because of the number of [tapes] and because they were just sitting in a warehouse off-site. And there was survivability.”

The magnetic tapes had reached the end of their lifetime and might start to degrade, Feldman said. Optical platters were rated for decades.

“We turned those 30,000 tapes into about 212 disks,” Feldman said. With the data on 12-inch disks, “we could put 50 platters in the jukebox and have 500G online in something the size of a freezer.”

Large-capacity jukeboxes are used by NASA, the Library of Congress and various security agencies. But many other agencies are migrating to 5.25-inch WORM drives or 5.25-inch multifunction drives.

“The niche for WORM devices today is somewhere where data is not going to change over the long term, where it would remain unmodified for years,” said Tom Mattison, director of system engineering at Computer Sciences Corp.

“We are talking about near-line storage of very large databases: patent databases, tax information, individual tax records,” said Howard Parker, director of marketing at the Peak Technologies Group, a company that provides mass-storage subsystems. For these applications, “optical jukeboxes have a cost advantage over hard disk and a performance advantage over tape,” Parker said.

Price Waterhouse is using WORM jukeboxes on a contract to provide imaging capabilities for the Student Loan Marketing Association’s seven loan servicing centers throughout the country, according to partner Cathy Neuman.

The jukeboxes allow the company to retrieve images of loans as needed. The system processes 55 million pages a year.

“The way the system is structured, for the first 45 to 60 days documents will be accessed more frequently, and we keep it locally at the departmental level,” Neuman said. After two months pass, the documents are transferred to optical disk.

The system uses 12-inch WORM jukeboxes supplied by ATG Cygnet. “The intent is to store the information well past the life of the loan, for up to 33 years,” Neuman said. “We don’t want the possibility of the data being changed.” Five jukeboxes have been installed to date, each with four drives and about a terabyte of storage.

Though vendors are constantly improving the capacity of high-end jukeboxes, real growth is among customers interested in smaller systems.

Mike Potter, federal programs manager at Artecon, said, “It is at the medium and the low end that we are seeing the real growth.”

Federal engineers and desktop publishers use lower-capacity jukeboxes for online archiving and other networked applications. “The desktop jukeboxes are for small-office and personal use,” said Deborah Vanderhoof, procurement manager at PRC.

Lower-capacity, 5.25-inch jukeboxes are being prototyped as part of the Defense Department’s Joint Continuous Acquisition and Life-Cycle Support (JCALS) program. Prime contractor CSC has provided jukeboxes from Q-Star Technology. Each jukebox has a capacity of about 20G and contains a small subset of the military’s technical manuals.

So far, the JCALS jukeboxes seem to be performing satisfactorily, said Jimmy Thomas, systems engineer at the Technical Management Division of JCALS in Fort Monmouth, N.J. JCALS had some problems integrating Q-Star jukeboxes with Digital Equipment systems, but these problems were overcome with help from the vendors, he said.

Jukeboxes will continue to grow in popularity, according to analysts at Freeman Associates. Worldwide unit shipments will increase from 14,000 in 1993 to more than 97,000 in 1999.

The smaller, multifunction jukeboxes and the new CD-ROM jukeboxes will dominate the market over the next few years, the company predicts. Eventually, almost half of all sales will come from small, multifunction libraries with fewer than 30 disks.

Vendors predict that hierarchical storage management will be a driving force in future jukebox sales. HSM automates the process of migrating less frequently used data to less expensive storage devices, such as optical drives and tape subsystems.

“The [HSM] market is still maturing, but it should have a place in the federal government,” said Joe Dellinger, director of Q-Star Technology’s federal division.

Lazar is a freelance writer based in Cliffside Park, N.J.

Reliability drives federal buysWhen evaluating jukeboxes, federal buyers are motivated by three considerations: price, performance and reliability. Of the three, reliability is the biggest concern.

“Reliability is the given,” said Werner Glinka, a director at Maxoptics in San Jose, Calif. “You don’t start looking at technical specs until you’re sure of that.”

Jimmy Thomas, systems engineer in the Technical Management Division of the Joint Continuous Acquisition and Lifecycle Support in Fort Monmouth, N.J., agreed. “The questions are, ‘Is it fast?’ and ‘Is it up?’ And it doesn’t matter how fast it is if it isn’t up.”

Federal buyers also have to consider the reliability of the vendor. Because they are buying a storage medium guaranteed to last for decades, buyers want to be sure that they can read today’s data on tomorrow’s machines.

“They want to take the least risk possible and make sure that they never become technologically obsolete,” said Ron Lempert, director of optical library sales and operations for image processing provider FileNet, in Costa Mesa, Calif.

— Jerry Lazar, published on May 30, 1994
Legal copy dilemmaOne issue that has stalled optical storage sales in the federal sector is the medium’s questionable status as a legal copy. Government agencies, while accepting photocopies and microfilm, have been slow to accept optical disks.

The Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Archives have started accepting write-once, read-many disks, according to Brian Ritchie, vice president of marketing for jukebox provider Alphatronix.

“I think you’ll see the marketplace starting to open up,” he said. “Now that it has been approved, the government may start to buy more…. Eventually, as Archives gets comfortable with WORM, they will look at other optical technology.”

— Jerry Lazar, published on May 30, 1994

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