Time to Catch Up

Last issue I reflected on a storage concept that intrigued me: a USB-based disk. At the same time two other new technologies have caught my eye. While they’re pretty interesting, they both make me wonder about the relationship between fancy new storage options and our dowdy old user interface for storage.

The first of these technologies is a new disk from IBM. Last year, I talked about the implications of having a disk drive that fit in the Compact Flash (CF) storage format. IBM has delivered with its Microdrive, a disk that fits in a CF slot and provides about 340 MB of space.

That’s quite a palmful, and it fits in digital cameras, handheld PCs, MP3 players, and other small devices that support a CF Type II slot. The Microdrive is compact, but it’s also relatively cheap: In both size and price per megabyte it beats alternative tiny storage technologies such as Iomega’s Click drive.

For an encore, IBM announced -- and is starting to deliver -- a Gigabyte Microdrive. Imagine, a gigabyte in a space smaller than a pocket watch. Just to put this in perspective, IBM introduced its first gigabyte capacity disk drive in 1980. The 3380 was the size of a washing machine, weighed more than 500 pounds, and cost $40,000. By comparison, IBM’s Microdrive is about the size of the screen on a cellular phone, weighs about the same as a plastic spoon, and costs less than $500.

The implications for storage are obvious: If you can carry a thousand 200-page books or a thousand high-resolution photos in your pocket, why not your company’s entire multimedia product catalog or a complete computer based training system for all the applications in use at your site? Need a quick refresher on how your copy of Excel can be linked to the corporate data drilling resource? Just play back the multimedia from your tiny CF drive!

As astonishing as the Microdrive is, another development has been able to catch my attention, as well. In these pages, large-scale system storage usually gets all the attention. But almost every desktop I encounter is still outfitted with its own local storage. In July, the hard disk manufacturer Maxtor introduced an 80 GB EIDE drive. That’s not a misprint: 80 GB for the corporate or consumer desktop.

That means a low-end desktop with a single EIDE controller could be outfitted with more than 150 gigabytes of storage. Should we be scattering data over many of those local drives throughout the enterprise, or should we be centralizing the data? The answer is obvious -- but the fact is that local storage capabilities are going to continue to grow.

Using a 2 MB buffer and average access speeds of 9 million seconds, the Maxtor disk is an excellent performer. It features the improved EIDE ATA/100 interface, which has the capability of burst transfer speeds of up to 100 MBps. That compares with earlier versions of the EIDE interface that ran at 66 MBps or 33 MBps. By comparison, the fastest SCSI specification allows burst transfer rates at 160 MBps.

I’m susceptible to The Gee Whiz syndrome when new storage technologies like these appear. In fact, after using two of the three -- I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on one of the Maxtor drives -- I was, at first, very impressed. Then a nagging thought hit me: no matter how cheap, how fast, how big, or how compact storage becomes, the user interface is still 20 years old.

With all the improvements in disk storage, users still see the storage world as a series of drives, directories, and files. Even the user interface improvements that came with recent consumer and corporate versions of Windows doesn’t hide this foundation of the storage world.

What’s missing is the relationships between files whose content are logically connected. Also missing is some feel for the dependencies between files or the information inside files. Imagine if a file system was presented more like a Web page: a collection of resources, descriptors, and pointers to related information. Some people say we are already moving toward that view with Explorer, its system of shortcuts, and its file system object properties. I don't think that it's rich enough. The user interface needs to expand beyond the simple management of the physical file system.

The user’s interface to the storage system must reflect the richness of content and the interrelationships between that content that go beyond simple physical files. If users can order computers with 80 GB of basic local storage; if users can add 60 GB to their systems as easily as plugging in a USB mouse; and, if you can fit a gigabyte of storage into the front watch pocket of your blue jeans there ought to be a modern way for the user to work with these vast amounts of storage. Explorer on its own isn’t enough.

Is Microsoft listening? --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.