Optical media poised for summer splash

Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) the next generation of compact disc technology has been eagerly awaited by federal agencies who want to use it to store and distribute huge data sets including images and video more easily.

The new optical storage media and DVD-ROM drives which are finally expected to become available to consumers this summer will enable users to read discs with 4.7G to 17G of capacity far more than the standard CD-ROM format.

Planned future versions of the technology including DVD-Recordable and the writable-erasable DVD-RAM may offer alternatives to traditional backup and archive solutions.

Agencies especially those that plan to be high-end users have big plans for DVD said Jerry McFaul a computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who heads the SIGCAT user group on CD-ROM technology. He said some agencies including his own have databases that are too large to publish on CD-ROM but hard to distribute on tape or on the Internet.

DVD "will fill the void " said Frances Mendelsohn a consultant who specializes in emerging technologies because the lowest-capacity DVD disc will hold seven times the information that a CD-ROM can handle.

Nevertheless Mendelsohn and others familiar with the new technology said the capabilities of DVD-ROM drives could be limited for a few years and many users will continue to use current technology.

Though DVD and CD-ROM discs have the same physical dimensions DVD discs are able to store more data because they are manufactured differently. For example the difference in how data is recorded on DVD discs allows the new format to store more information on the same size surface. Where CD-ROM discs are made with one layer of material on which data is recorded DVD discs are made with up to four layers two on each side of the disc.

Unveiling Date Uncertain

Vendors are not sure yet when they will begin to offer the drives on federal contracts partly because the products have not yet been shipped to them from the manufacturers. They also are still assessing how much demand there is for DVD technology at introductory prices.

A spokeswoman for Government Technology Services Inc. said the company expects to receive the drives in late summer but was not yet sure when the products would be added to its General Services Administration multiple-award schedule contract.

The first DVD-ROM drives are expected to cost about $500 according to data provided by NB Digital Solutions a Crofton Md. application developer. Scott Hay the hybrid authoring studio manager at Intel Corp. told attendees on a DVD technology panel at the recent SIGCAT CD-ROM conference that it would be two to three years before the drives are bundled routinely into the typical desktop computers.

Furthermore outside of large federal databases such as environmental information published by the Environmental Protection Agency many federal and commercial disc applications do not yet require as much capacity as is offered by DVD. "The vast majority of CD titles don't fill the whole [650M] CD today " McFaul said. "So I think we have room left on the current CD-ROM and CD-Recordable technology for several years with current technology current usage."

Another factor that could deter agencies from adopting the technology early is that although the first DVD-ROM drives will be backward-compatible with mass-market CD-ROM titles they will not be able to read CD-Recordable discs.

CD-R is a popular technology for internal storage and distribution of data McFaul said and if manufacturers "want to sell into the data market they have to have backward compatibility."

DVD-R and DVD-RAM technology is expected to follow DVD-ROM within a year. Chip Bumgardner chief technical officer and senior vice president at BTG Inc. said the recording capabilities of these formats could "revolutionize backup technology " by providing a storage medium with higher capacity than magneto-optical discs at a faster retrieval rate than tape.

Huge Data Sets

So far the agencies most interested in DVD technology appear to be those that are looking for better ways to manage and distribute huge data sets. Brand Niemann a computer scientist with the EPA is developing applications for capturing environmental data from agency World Wide Web pages on disc in order to distribute this information off-line.

The applications are designed to overcome "gridlock" on the Web as well as deliver Web-based information to people who do not have Web access. "We've been retrieving people's Web pages off the Internet and they would easily fill more than a CD so we need DVD capacity " Niemann said.

Bruce Cox CD-ROM program manager with the Patent and Trademark Office said his agency wants to use DVD to reduce the number of discs it ships to customers outside the government. PTO's USAPat publication with copies of all patents granted annually occupies 150 CD-ROM discs today.

In addition he said a plan PTO has to publish its entire database of patents - about 60 million images - on disc would be "far far more economical " to produce on DVD even though DVD currently costs more to master.

Still Cox said although PTO's industrial customers would be willing to invest in the new technology he continues to have some concerns about the migration path for the DVD. "The biggest issue over the last couple of years has been whether this is going to take off in the marketplace " he said. "It's not yet clear to me yet whether this will be a fully viable market."

One reason for these questions is that the first most highly touted applications for DVD are in the home-video market. DVD video discs and players are being pushed as a higher-quality alternative to videocassettes. The market research firm Advanced Media Research predicts that by 2000 there will be DVD devices in 13 million homes but other analysts question how quickly consumers will be willing to buy the new devices which do not have recording capabilities.

DVD vendors contend that despite the technology's obvious growing pains it is here to stay. Intel's Hay said "Any new PC at the end of the decade will have DVD-ROM in it."

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