Case Study: Magneto optical drives

For many graphics companies, basic hard drive storage is not sufficient. They require portable media that can store huge data...

For many graphics companies, basic hard drive storage is not sufficient. They require portable media that can store huge data files. A magneto optical drive might be the best solution

There's much talk nowadays about the problems caused by the data explosion. Large businesses like banks, supermarkets and telecommunication providers talk of databases measured in terabytes. But small businesses are also feeling the full force of the data explosion, especially in the area of file size. And few businesses produce files as big as those generated and used by graphic designers.

If you follow the fashions in computing, you know that hard disks are getting bigger. But their rate of growth is outstripped by the increase in the size of files we create today. For example, when design company MicroGraphix was asked to produce a 7m-long illustration for an exhibition stand, the resulting file, an Adobe PhotoShop graphic, was over 400Mb. It would take 278 floppy disks to store that much information. And that's not unusual; many of the catalogues MicroGraphix designs use hundreds of illustrations and are bigger still.

Mike Linzey, one of the partners in MicroGraphix, explains the problems posed by working with large files: "When graphic files are created and worked on, applications like Photoshop need access to memory that is typically three or four times greater than the file itself. They use this as a "scratch disk" to manipulate information and store intermediate stages in case we want to undo a series of changes. In the case of our exhibition graphic, that means we needed about a gigabyte and a half of free, fast-access space. With the hard disks in our Macs offering only four gigabytes, working with large files quickly overstretches a disk that already holds the operating system and application software.

"Having created large data files which represent hours, even days, of work, we need to store them on-line, or near-line" continues Linzey. "This is so that they can be quickly accessed and worked on as the job progresses through its stages of client corrections and approvals, proofing and production. Keeping a range of large files for different work-in-progress on our hard disks is not an option. When jobs are signed-off by our clients, they are passed to pre-production houses or printers to be turned into the brochures, catalogues, posters or exhibition panels in which we specialise. How do you send a 400Mb file? To us, floppy disks are useless, except as coffee coasters. Despite the promise of the telecom companies' advertising, ISDN, at the ISDN2 or ISDN4 rate preferred by most designers and print and production houses, takes hours of transmission time. The most common removable media in the publishing industry, Iomega's Zip, holds a maximum of 100Mb. Some other removable media ( bigger in storage terms, fast to write to, easy to dispatch and cheap to buy ( has to be the answer. HP's optical media has all those advantages.

"Lastly, for reasons of security, files like these need to be backed-up during creation." He concludes. "And after they have been completed, they need to be archived. "For MicroGraphix, a five-person company using Apple Macintosh workstations and PC laptops, the SureStore optical and DAT products provide the answers to these problems.

When attached to an Apple Mac by its standard SCSI port, a SureStore optical drive provides MicroGraphix with an extra 2.6Gb of disk space. The difference is that it is removable, so that large jobs like the exhibition graphic can have the equivalent of their own hard disk. Both storage space and a large "scratch disk", are provided on one 5.25in disk.

Using optical storage technology provides an extra level of assurance for MicroGraphix because it is less prone to corruption than tape. The benefits of HP optical storage to the design agency do not stop there, though. For smaller projects (in terms of file size), an optical disk is dedicated to each customer's work-in-progress, providing both a first level of archiving and a filing system which doesn't impact space on the Macintoshes' hard disks.

Working with print and production houses that are suitably equipped, MicroGraphix simply sends an optical cartridge with all the files needed to produce the job, knowing that they can be opened, and if necessary worked on, at the production house. The printer makes amendments to the file on the disk, so that when it is returned to MicroGraphix after completion of the job, it leaves the final version of the file in their hands.

An individual design project can involve hours, days, even weeks of work. Losing this due to computer failure, theft, fire, storm or flood would be a catastrophe from which any business would struggle to recover. While optical disks provide higher security, there is still a paramount need to back-up systems and work-in-progress on a daily basis.

MicroGraphix manages this with a SureStore DAT24 tape drive. Combined with Retrospect, automated back-up software from Dantz, the drive allows a full backup to be made every 24 hours. The company uses five DAT cartridges, one for each day of the week. Each cartridge can store up to 24Gb of uncompressed data, more with Retrospect's compression algorithms.

The appropriate cartridge ( no bigger than a music cassette ( is inserted into the drive. Then, late that evening, when the office is empty, Retrospect automatically compares every file on the network with the files held on the cartridge from the previous week. Where changes are detected, the latest version of the file overwrites the old and new files are added. The following morning the cartridge is swapped for the next day's while the current one is taken off-site for storage.

According to Linzey, the precaution has proved worthwhile. "In our trading life we've suffered our share of hard disk crashes and corrupted files. Being able to quickly restore the previous day's version has saved us many hours of midnight oil and has rescued our reputation for service more than once."

Agith Ramachandran

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