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Storage is No Problem

By Peter Varhol

Because I was just about at capacity on the 75GB drive on my three-year-old laptop and was not ready to buy a new computer until Windows 7 comes out, I recently looked into alternative storage options.

Several advances have driven storage technology in recent years. First are the higher densities and lower costs for solid-state storage. This technology consists of memory chips, but these receive an additional flow of electricity while the system is off, making them nonvolatile. In other words, they store data even while the system is turned off.

A second advance is higher capacities and smaller sizes for the traditional rotating drives. This has been achieved primarily by the ability to arrange the magnetic particles on the platter in increasingly compact ways. In fact, IBM has demonstrated a way to arrange the magnetic particles standing up, rather than lying flat on the panel, enabling many more magnetic particles on the same platter, and consequently a higher density of storage.

The interface of an external drive with an individual computer these days is almost always a USB 2.0 port. While it is a serial port, it has come a long way from the old RS-232 serial ports, and have the throughput to support data transfer fast enough to make these drives a good option.

The most obvious choice for my storage problem is a solid-state USB flash drive, often also known as a “thumb” drive or memory stick because of its small size. Prices have come down significantly on these devices, and capacities have increased. The largest capacity I have seen for a USB memory stick is 64 GB, and while the price of this is in the $200 range, it is a relatively large store with a great deal of convenience.

Other types of external solid-state drives are also available, usually in a form factor smaller than a rotating disk drive. They tend to be somewhat more expensive than a disk drive, but somewhat faster in file access, especially reading files.

Rotating drives are of increasingly high capacities, and the prices have come down immensely. It was less than 15 years ago that a dollar a MB was what you would pay for storage (in other words, $1000 for a 1 GB disk). Today, that is laughable.

Because I was looking for an interim solution in the months before buying a new computer altogether, I didn’t need an expensive and high-capacity solution. I needed something that would give me a decent amount of capacity and ordinary performance for a few months.

My selection was a Western Digital My Passport, a rotating disk drive with the form factor of a travel passport, only perhaps three times thicker. It connects via a USB port, and when connected automatically backs up email and other files that I designate. Given its size, it slips easily into a backpack or can be carried with the computer on trips.

For a 320 GB drive, the price was just more than $60. I have since found an advertisement from a national shopping club (of which I am a member) that is offering a 1 TB drive with a slightly larger form factor for $110.

Of course, I can always find my storage on the Web, for a very low cost or for free, but I can’t install applications on it like I can on a local external drive. But whatever you do, it is easy and inexpensive to choose from a wide variety of storage options for your computer today.

About Peter Varhol

Contributing Editor Peter Varhol covers the HPC and IT beat for Digital Engineering. His expertise is software development, math systems, and systems management. You can reach him at DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.