Case Study: Iomega Zip 100 & 250 drives

De-centralised storage enabled by built-in Zip drives proved the answer to the University of Hertfordshire's storage problems...

De-centralised storage enabled by built-in Zip drives proved the answer to the University of Hertfordshire's storage problems when it set up its 800-seat resource centre

The mobile user population is no longer just the reserve of the travelling sales team ( there are few organisations that don't have to cope with users dialing into the network. While mobile computing provides many benefits, it also poses a huge challenge in terms of data synchronisation, configuration management, access security and data storage.

Imagine, now that mobile users are the bulk of your users and not a minority, how should organisations cope with such a situation?

This is precisely the situation facing universities and other educational establishments. And with hundreds or thousands of students, all of who require computer access, the problem might seem insurmountable. However, where data storage is concerned, one university has adopted a strategy that makes the most of current technology, is relatively low-cost and reduces the burden without compromising the quality of data access.

The University of Hertfordshire, based in Hatfield, opened its learning resources centre to cater for the increasing IT and library demands of students in its eight faculties. The centre provided the University with 800 seats, the bulk of them PCs, along with a smattering of Macintosh compatibles. The biggest problem it faced was how to handle data storage. With a user population constantly on the move, local storage on each machine's hard disk was out of the question. Computer rooms and labs operate an open door policy most of the time and since there are more students than machines, it was impractical to assign a machine to each student.

Centralised vs de-centralised storage

The traditional solution to the problem is to provide some type of central data storage. In this scenario, the students' data would be stored not on local hard disks, but centrally on the network. Backups would be made regularly and stored at a central IT site or even at a separate location. However, providing sufficient storage capacity is expensive, not only in terms of the direct cost of hard disk space, but also in data administration expenses. The IT department is responsible for the backup, administration and storage, placing extra demands on its staff.

Central storage could also be unsatisfactory from the user's perspective. Responsibility for students' data would be devolved to a department with which they may have little contact. Data restores, for example, could be problematic and might not be readily available. In addition, there is a clear lack of portability. Students could only work on large files while connected to the central data server and would not be able to carry data off-site to continue working. The PCs' 1.44Mb floppy drives would not provide much in the way of storage and, even with software compression, many files would not fit onto a single floppy disk.

Removable Storage Media

Andy Wroot, assistant director (IT services) in the learning and information services department at the university, was charged with finding a de-centralised data model. He came to the conclusion that removable storage media provided an elegant solution to the problem.

After examining the different removable media technologies available, Wroot decided Iomega built-in Zip drives were the best option. The media is widely available, with a lower cost-per-megabyte than floppies, and some students were already bringing their own external Zip drives into the university to attach to the PCs.

Wroot says of the decision: "We felt the Iomega Zip technology was as close to an industry standard as we could get, so the choice seemed logical."

Unlike external Zip drives, the built-in Zip is installed in the PC, much like a standard floppy drive. Not only does it do away with the need for bulky power supplies, it is also more secure because the drives cannot be removed easily. To the user, the Zip appears as just another of the PC's storage devices, such as a floppy drive, hard disk or CD drive.

"Students were beginning to need more storage space. They also required portability, in order to work on the files in different locations and ultimately take the work with them after graduation," says Wroot. "We decided to make a pre-emptive strike in order to avoid any problems in the future. Opening the new facility allowed us to order RM PCs with built-in Iomega Zip drives fitted as part of the standard configuration. This gave students the option of storing up to 100Mb of data per disk ( the equivalent of 70 3.5in floppy disks."

Built-in Zip

RM, which supplied the machines at the university, is one of the main PC suppliers to the educational sector, but is not the only company offering built-in Zip drives on its machines. Many other manufacturers, including Compaq, Dell, Gateway and Apple, now offer machines pre-configured with the drives. In the university's case, the fact that Iomega could cater for the Mac compatibles was an additional factor in its favour.

With the Zip drives installed, students can store very large files and sets of files, projects and course work. For multimedia and design students, this facility is especially useful because it allows them to work with huge files such as graphics, animations and sound files. There are other benefits too, and not just for the user population. Wroot's IT staff do not have to worry about backing up individuals' data or providing extra capacity as demand increases. This has an indirect cost benefit in freeing them up to perform other tasks. There is one final benefit. Forcing responsibility for data storage back on the students teaches them a useful lesson, highlighting the importance of making regular backups. It's a lesson that all users need to be aware of, not just university students.

Wider applications

Although a university environment poses a unique set of problems for IT infrastructure and support, this use of removable storage media has wider applications. As a data path for quickly transferring bulk data between sites (between home and office, for example) removable storage is an ideal solution. The large installed user base of Iomega Zip drives, and the availability of disks, make them an ideal choice. The recent introduction of the Zip 250 drive, featuring an increased storage capacity of 250Mb, shows that this is a technology moving forward and able to cope with the increasing demand for storage space.

In the case of the University of Hertfordshire, Iomega Zip has been the ideal solution. The system has proved so popular that the number of machines has been increased from the original 800 to more than 1,000.

Pan Pantziarka

This was last published in July 1999

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