Tag Archives: Computer storage media

Backing up hard to do, but worth it

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Sometimes it takes something like an earthquake to realize that you’re vulnerable.

Once the ground stops shaking and you’ve begun to sense that your life — and those of your loved one(s) — are not in imminent danger, your thoughts turn to the next most important thing in your world: Your data.

Well, of course, that may not be your exact train of thought, but it’s the general direction. So much of our lives are digital these days — e-mails, music, photos, social lives — the first thing we tend to clutch when we’re in trouble is our cell phone/laptop/external disk drive.

Or at least it should be. So what should you prepare for when things go wrong and you need to evacuate, pronto?

Here, in brief, is how to do it:

Whatever can be online, should be. E-mails, for example, should be on something like Google’s Gmail (or Yahoo!, who have launched a new e-mail service that’s at least as generous in terms of storage as Google’s.)

This doesn’t mean you can’t also keep your e-mails on your own computer, but make sure they are also online. Get in the habit of e-mailing important documents to yourself, as well, so you’ve got an extra copy online.

This means you can evacuate in a relaxed state of mind. Well, as relaxed as you can be fleeing a building that is burning/falling/swaying/no longer strictly speaking a building.

Same goes with photos: Get in the habit of uploading your favorite photos to an online photo album service like Flickr (www.flickr.com), because if there’s one thing you don’t want to lose it’s family snaps.

Sign up for the Pro edition if you’ve got the cash and a fast(ish) Internet connection, since at US$25 a year for unlimited storage it’s a reasonably cheap way of backing up.

Add photos incrementally: Just get into the habit of uploading photos to your Flickr account when you upload them from your camera/cellphone to the computer (I’m assuming you do this; you do do this, right?)

Of course, online options are only good if you’re online. And, tellingly, I’m not right now because there’s a problem with the Internet — and quite a big problem, since even my trusty backup connection is down — so you shouldn’t rely exclusively on connectivity.

(The other problem is that as more of us go digital, we can’t hope to store everything online, because there’s so much of it. Our iPods store 60 GB or more these days, which is still impractical to back up online.)

In which case you need to have a hard drive backup. There are several ways of doing this, but here’s the best one: Back up everything on all the PCs and laptops in your house to one big external drive the size of hardback book, which you can then grab as you exit the building in an orderly manner.

Here’s how to do that:

Maxtor offer a pretty reasonable range of backup hard drives — the cheapest are really just hard drives in a plastic casing (good to prevent damage: hard drives are not as tough as they pretend to be.)

Expect a whopping 500 gigabyte drive to cost you less than $200. Attach the drive to a USB port and you’ve now got a seriously large drive attached to your computer.

Then buy a program called Acronis True Image ($50 from here) and make a backup image of all the computers in your house.

(An image is a sort of snapshot of your computer. It’s faster than backing up individual files, but will still allow you to restore individual files or folders if you need to.)

It’s a little tricky to set up but you’ll get the hang of it, since you’re going to be backing up once a week. (Yes, you are.)

If you think this is too much for you and that the only data you really need to save are a few documents, then get a USB flash drive (those little sticks you can put on a key ring.)

Prices have fallen to the point where they’re a cheap option now for up to four gigabytes. I would recommend the SanDisk Cruzer micro, not only because they don’t have removable caps (which always get lost) but because they include software that make backing up important files easy. (Stick the drive in a USB slot and follow the instructions.)

A word of warning: Think hard about what data you’ve got and what you want to save. It’s easy to forget stuff hidden in an obscure folder.

Get into the habit of saving important files — whether they’re attachments, photos, spreadsheets or whatever — into the same folder. It’ll make finding them to back them up much easier and quicker.

Oh, and try not to wait until the building is swaying/filled with smoke/has moved down the street before actually doing the backing up.

Trust me: You can’t count on thinking as clearly as you might expect.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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A New Concept In Storage, Or Too Small To Matter?

It’s finally arrived: the USB flash drive that thinks it’s a floppy disk.

It was like this: For years stuff — data, programs — was moved around via a floppy disk. First they were big 5” things, then they shrank to 3”. Iomega tried to win people over with ZIP drives but they never really penetrated much deeper than a few suckers like me who invested hundreds of dollars in stacks of them. (Tip: Never buy a storage device where the intellectual property is held by one company.)

Then the CD-ROM came along, and got so cheap it became simpler to just burn data onto them to hand around as one would a floppy disk. The problem is that they’re not all reusable, meaning lots of CD-ROMs sitting around useless and old. Then the USB flash drive started making headway, getting smaller, easier to use and cheaper. Folk started carrying them on a keychain, or around their neck, and swapping stuff like in the old days. But they were never so cheap that you had more than half a dozen of them, so they never quite became floppy drives. A sentence you rarely heard was: “Here copy the data onto my USB drive and take it; I’ve got thousands of them in the cupboard.”

Now you might. Verbatim/Memorex has today launched the 16MB FlashDisc. At £14 or $20 for a 3-pack, the “new media is set to revolutionise the way in which photos, music and other digital data files are exchanged,” the company hopes.

It certainly looks cute. I can immediately see problems plugging one into crowded and cramped USB ports but the circular thing and colors make it appealing. And there’s some sense in making these things so cheap that people will stock up on them in the same way we used to stock up on floppies. Indeed, “we’ve brought this new product category for sharing digital files to market because our research shows a significant demand exists for low-capacity storage media at a reasonable cost,” Hans-Christoph Kaiser, Verbatim Business Unit Manager, is quoted as saying in the press release. “512MB, 1GB and larger USB drives will remain popular but with FlashDisc we’re providing an entirely new flash-based solution at a low cost that’s within everyone’s reach so providing an ideal solution to everyday needs for storing and sharing electronic data.”

I think the problem is whether 16 megabytes is enough. Nowadays that doesn’t get you very far: four MP3 files, say, or 10 photos of questionable quality. Given the old floppies could hold 1.4 megabytes, the size sounds generous, but that was back in the days of 100 megabyte hard drives. Nowadays they’re 100 gigabytes, meaning these FlashDiscs should store about a gigabyte to make sense. Or is my math all wrong?

Either way, I don’t expect these to raise eyebrows until they come out in capacities that make sense: at least 100 megabytes and I think we might start to listen.

An Updated Directory Of Programs Designed For USB Drives

Update Nov 6 2006: To avoid confusion I’ve moved all this back to the original page.

Here’s a directory of applications designed to run on USB drives, a subject I wrote about in the AWSJ and WSJ.com (subscription required; sorry). This list includes those suggestions kindly sent in by readers from the last posting. Please keep them coming (I haven’t checked to see whether those suggested run without hacks off USB drives, and I have left off some of the more sysadmin type tools the general reader might not have much appetite for.)

Then there are all the applications designed to run on Iomega’s proprietary Active Disk, some of which also come in non-Active Disk versions. There are also some other sites that have collected these kind of applications:

Say Goodbye To The USB Flash Drive?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with Trek 2000’s chief financial officer, Gurcharan Singh. Trek, a Singapore company, claim to be the originators of the USB drive, or thumb drive as they call it, and are currently sueing a company called M-Systems in a test case over who owns the patent for putting flash memory on a USB plug.

That’s all going through the courts, and has been for some time, but clearly Trek 2000 are playing a central role in the whole flash-drive-on-a-stick thing, since besides selling their own products, they are the OEM manufacturers of several dozen such USB drives, including folk like iomega. But what intrigued me, among several things, was a gadget he had in his display case that he hinted was the future of USB drives. I had asked him about concerns over the durability and reliability of flash memory (my own experience making me less than sanguine) and while he was careful not to play up such concerns, he pointed to a device that was barely larger than a USB drive, but which contained a 0.85 inch 10 gigabyte hard drive, manufactured by one of Trek 2000’s main strategic partners, Toshiba. “This will address the issues of flash that you’re talking about,” he said. At the moment flash drives get no larger than a 2 gigabytes.

Toshiba has promised to lauch the 0.85” drive early this year, according to The Register, who point out that these drives are about 80% smaller than the hard drives you’ll find in an iPod or similar device. If Gurcharan is correct it sounds like these hard drives will have a larger capacity than earlier expected and they’re likely to be as popular, if not more so, than the USB flash drive.

So will this cause a splash? Yes, I think, because they’re so small. They’ll wow us and make us do a lot more with our USB stick. Not that there aren’t options beyond flash out there already. Of a similar ilk, but using the older, larger drives, take a look at Sony’s new 2.0 GB Micro Vault Pro, which I saw in Singapore’s malls for about S$450 ($275, see illustration) or Z-Cyber’s 1 or 2 GB Zling Drives, which I’m guessing use the same hard drives, but seem to sell for a lot less: I saw the 2 GB version selling for S$200, and the 1 GB for S$129. Then there’s the Emprex range of Micro Storage, from 2.2 to 4.0 GB, selling for S$190 and S$275 respectively. All of these are basically small hard drives on a USB dongle. They’re nice, but they’re not nearly as small as what Trek 2000 are likely to unveil some time this year.  

(If you’re looking for larger storage you’ll have to go to iomega’s Mini Hard Drives, which come in 20GB and 40GB capacities. )

What I think we’re going to see are these microdrives really pushing out flash as folk come to rely on them more and more. It’s yet to be proven that these very small hard drives are as rugged as they claim to be, but I think we’re safe in saying that flash, while excellent, is not reliable enough to be anything other than a short-term means of storage. What’s more, with bigger capacities, micro drives are going to be able to do things, and go places, that flash drives just can’t do: Storing whole feature-length movies, an evening full of musical entertainment on a key-ring, a cellphone that doubles as your hard drive. There’ll be a role to play for USB flash but we may soon be looking back nostalgically at these devices as charmingly limited in what they could do for us.

The Brits And Storage

The Brits have succeeded in squeezing a terabyte onto a DVD disk, 10 times what the BluRay disks can  currently hold and 50 times the capacity of a double-sided, double-layed DVD.

Nature reports that the disk is called MODS, for Multiplexed Optical Data Storage, and could potentially contain 472 hours of video footage – equivalent to a terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, of data. It’s been developed by a team led by Peter Török of Imperial College London.

But there’s a problem: So far the researchers can’t retrieve information from their disk fast enough for video footage. It also won’t be around any time soon: Török believes that MODS disks could hit the shops between 2010 and 2015. And it will be too expensive for the layman, so MODS is more likely to be used by libraries or software companies looking for ways to marshal their huge amounts of data. “The British Library could put all their microfiches onto disks,” Török is quoted as saying. “It will be very good for archiving.”

Mind you, people said that about storage before. By then I’m guessing a terabyte on a DVD is not going to seem all that surprising, or all that expensive.

Why You Should Never Give A Company Your Data

Here’s a great example of why you can never really entrust your information to anyone but yourself.

The Register’s John Leyden reports that Pointsec Mobile Technologies, a data security company, has obtained via eBay a hard disk apparently owned by ”one of Europe’s largest financial services groups”. On the hard disk were, in the words of Pointsec, “pension plans, customer databases, financial information, payroll records, personnel details, login codes, and admin passwords for their secure Intranet site. There were 77 Microsoft Excel documents of customers email addresses, dates of birth, their home addresses, telephone numbers and other highly confidential information, which if exposed publicly could cause irrevocable damage to the company.” The disk cost Pointsec £5 (about $8).

The purchase wasn’t just a one-off, either. Pointsec says they bought 100 hard drives as part of research into this kind of problem, and found they were able to read 70% of them, despite the fact that all had supposedly been reformatted to wipe off data. They also visited airports in Sweden, the U.S. and Germany where laptops lost in transit were being auctioned off. In one case, using password recovery software, Pointsec was able to access information on the laptops even before purchasing the laptops. In Sweden the company bought a laptop on which they found ”four Microsoft Access databases containing company- and customer-related information and 15 Microsoft PowerPoint presentations containing highly sensitive company information.”

Ouch. I can’t find anything on Pointsec’s website about this but John’s report gives us enough to show this kind of problem is not an obscure one. Not only does it raise serious questions about company (and government) data security, but it also highlights how stupid we are to give any of our information to a company unless it’s absolutely necessary. This would, sadly, include folks like Plaxo, who may be sincere when they say they’re doing their utmost to protect our data. But what happens when they replace one of their hard drives?

Personally I think Pointsec should name the companies whose data they have retrieved: The Register says they won’t, and they’ll destroy the hard drives. This kind of research may prove to be good for Pointsec’s business, since they can take the data to the companies in question and offer to fix the problem, but what about all the thousands of other companies that don’t think it’s their kind of problem? Unless they are named and shamed I don’t think there’s enough incentive for companies to double check their data security and privacy policies.

This week’s column – Visualizing Tools

This week’s Loose Wire column takes a look at programs that visualize your hard disk.

ONE OF THE CRAZY THINGS about computers is that the more we use them, the more of a mystery they become. Think of all the things you’ve done with your computer: reading and writing e-mail, browsing Web sites, downloading (and making) music, editing and watching video, storing photos. All these things take up valuable space, but are impossible to find without a team of forensic experts to help. In short, finding what’s valuable and what’s not is easier in your loft, basement, garage or den than on your own hard disk.

That’s the problem. Here’s the solution: Software that allows you to view your hard disk as if you were X-raying it. These programs take a close look at your hard drive–or whatever disk you want it to, from a USB drive to a CD-ROM–and present it as a graphic, broken down into little coloured blocks that represent the files and folders that make up your data. The size of the blocks depends on the size of the files and folders they represent, and their colour depends on whether they are photos, music files, documents or whatever. Your hard drive will look like mosaic, with the various files and folders all separately adding little rectangular bits to make up the whole picture. Such programs, for want of a better term, are called disk-visualization tools

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at WSJ.com  (subscription required). Old columns at feer.com here.

A New, Small Portable Hard Drive

From Akiba comes word of a new USB hard drive that’s a good 5 cm shorter than the usual laptop hard drive in a case, the Transcend 20GB and 40GB portable USB drive.

If size is important for you, it looks like a good choice. No price given.

How Long Do USB Thumb Drives Live?

Had my first USB thumb drive (sometimes called USB flash drives, or USB key drives) die on me today.

They’re a great way to move stuff from A to B, and to keep an extra back-up in your pocket, but don’t rely on them too much. I’ve had several over the years (they first started appearing in this part of the world in 1999, if I recall) and this is the first time one has just refused to give up its secrets.

It’s not a well-known brand, but I guess it’s true of all these devices, which use flash memory to store up to half a gigabyte of stuff. I’ve read they live for “up to one million rewrites and can retain data for up to 10 years”. Not in this case they don’t. This one hadn’t been much further than my pocket for the past couple of years, and my pocket hasn’t been anywhere exciting since the Great Drinking Session of 1996.

My advice: Don’t treat them as any more substantial than floppy disks. Keep them for moving stuff from one computer to another, or as a second back-up (after hard drives, online backup and/or CD-Rs). Assume that you could lose the data, and plan accordingly. They’re wonderful little gadgets, but I just realised they’re not the trusty friend I thought they were.

The Smallest Hard Drive In The World

Small is beautiful.

The Guinness World Records has certified Toshiba’s 0.85-inch hard disk drive as the smallest HDD in the world (it’s not actually out yet; expect to see it in September).

Toshiba say it’s the first hard disk drive “to deliver multi-gigabyte data storage in a sub-one-inch form factor”. (The 0.85-inch measurement refers to the diameter of the magnetic disk.) It comes in capacities of 2 to 4 gigabytes and will probably end up in mobile phones, digital camcorders and portable storage devices.

The Guinness folks offer some historical perspective: The first hard drive came out in 1956, and needed 50 two-foot disks to store 4.4 MB.

Of course, with hard drives the size of your thumb, this is going to have a very interesting impact on PDAs, cellphones, laptops and MP3 players. My tupennce worth: Marry these very small drives with thin displays and what else do people need?