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    Cheap data storage radically changing computer landscape

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver October 26 -November 9-15, 2004; issue 785, High Tech Office column

    Back in 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore noticed that the number of transistors per integrated circuit had been climbing over time and predicted that this trend would continue. Moore's Law states that each generation of computer processors will pack more transistors, making them more powerful and making computer processing continually faster. As a result, today's computers can perform more operations than yesterday's and can do the same operations quicker and cheaper.

    1981's original IBM PC ran on an Intel 8088 processor with 27,000 transistors running at 4.7 MHz. Today's PC probably uses a Pentium 4 processor with some 42 million transistors, about 1,500 times as many as its 1981 counterpart, running at about three GHz, some 600 times faster. Intel suggests that Moore's Law should remain in effect at least through the end of the decade.

    Though Moore's Law gets all the publicity, storage capacities have also been rising. My first hard drive, purchased in 1988 for $400, could store 40 MB of information. By 1998, four GB drives, storing 100 times as much, were common. A 160-GB drive is standard on this season's 20-inch iMac, offering 4,000 times the room of my first hard drive. You can buy a 250-GB drive for $300, and you might be able to find better deals if you shop around.

    That 1988 computer used floppy diskettes which each held 360 kilobytes of data. (To refresh your memory, a kilobyte has room for 1,000 typed characters; 1,000 kb = one megabyte; 1,000 MB = one gigabyte. More or less).

    Most of today's computers can burn CDs storing some 700 MB of information, the equivalent of about 2,000 floppy diskettes. Many of us have DVD burners making discs that store up to 4.7 GB, almost seven CDs worth. Drives that can cram more on a DVD blank disc are starting to appear.

    The availability of large amounts of cheap storage is resulting in many changes. Among them:

    - Recordable DVDs are becoming increasingly the medium of choice for home and business data archiving, whether for recording TV shows or backing up hard drives. Older tape formats, whether VHS in the home or tape backup drives, will continue to be used, but they're on the way out.

    - Services that store large amounts of data for users will become increasingly common and affordable, and in many cases free. For example, Google's upcoming (and free) gMail service promises a gigabyte of online storage to users. A year ago, Web mail services like Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, or the service provided by my local ISP offered about 10 MB of storage to customers. Pressure from gMail is forcing services to up the amount they offer customers. Hotmail, for example, is slowly upgrading its users to 250 MB each. Google's service is still in beta-test. To get an account, you need to be invited by a current user. But the availability of large amounts of online storage changes the way you use these services. Now, for example, it becomes practical to e-mail yourself files so they can be accessed wherever you go.

    - Flash drives are increasingly popular as the replacement for floppy diskettes. Sometimes referred to as thumb drives and using the same sorts of flash memory used in digital camera memory cards, these are little devices that plug into computer USB ports, with room for anywhere from 64 to 512 MB. Like the floppy diskettes of old, they can go anywhere and be used with virtually any computer.

    Faster and cheaper computers changed the way we did business in the 1980s. Widespread Internet connectivity changed it again in the 1990s. The availability of massive amounts of cheap storage is changing it again this decade. Plan accordingly.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan