The Future of Pixel Storage

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2004-02-02

The Future of Pixel Storage

The prolonged course correction at Eastman Kodak, whose cutback of 22,000 jobs in the past five years will be followed—as announced late last month—by the loss of 15,000 more by 2006, is a powerful statement of the sea change thats taken place in imaging technology and practice.

The much-hyped tip-over in consumer camera sales, with digital units outselling film devices by an estimated 30 percent last year, is just the froth on the wave. The far more massive tsunami is in medical diagnosis, insurance claims processing, document management and other enterprise applications. Those changes make image data a major driver of demand for processing power, network bandwidth and storage capacity in enterprise IT—not just this year but as far into the future as anyone can reasonably predict.

Image processing challenges technology providers at every scale—from the submicroscopic photo sites of camera and scanner sensors to the long-distance networks that carry radiographic images to offshore centers for competitively priced analysis. And unlike the relatively mature technologies in much of enterprise IT, imaging is still operating on the bleeding edge of the state of the art. Continued dramatic breakthroughs in core technology will continue to create corresponding surges of new demand for image support in every application realm.

When PC buyers size their hard disks, or when major health care networks talk with storage-grid operators such as Canadas Bycast, its their image or video libraries that dominate their estimates of storage volume and their demands for reliable and immediate availability. Enterprise IT builders therefore need to take this bull by the horns, not merely letting imagery wreak havoc with their hardware and other resource budgets, but actively working with users to maximize the cost-effectiveness of image-based applications and systems.

The price of end-user freedom is frightful. A single image can be stored in anything from a full-size full-color bit map, consuming 14MB, to a screen-size gray-scale JPEG file, weighing in at only 40KB, with no loss of relevant content for many enterprise applications. The click of a File Save As menu choice—repeated across an enterprise—therefore becomes a high-impact decision. Were talking about a ratio of more than 300- to-1, and thats just storage space. Add to that the impact on network bandwidth and users time.


Active measures, such as chargebacks to business units based on image storage policies, should therefore be invoked to create appropriate incentives. Batch processing for image format conversion and compression, built into many image management tools but also capable of being deployed on a larger scale, should be employed to make storage more efficient. Appropriate usage rules should be established and automatically applied to meet image-quality constraints for different applications and to avoid breaking chains of evidence in legal or medical settings. Archival policies of removing imagery to lower-cost offline media should be developed and automated.

Image data should be specifically and robustly protected from accidental and deliberate alteration or misuse. Tools and skills that were once the domain of graphic arts and photography professionals are now everyday conveniences, and the value to be gained by altering an image may now far outweigh the cost. Watermarking and authentication methods and tools should therefore be part of every workflow that includes primary image data—that is, data inherently incapable of being reacquired or independently validated at a later date.

If it were literally true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then a 24-exposure roll of film would represent only about 170KB of storage—about the same capacity, oddly enough, as one of the single-sided floppy disks of the original IBM PC. Our notion of personal storage has mushroomed since that August 1981 hardware debut to the tens of gigabytes of an iPod or similar device, increasing at a staggering compound rate of more than 65 percent per year. Theres no end in sight—and that means ITs stewards must do better than just piling up the pixels. They must take an active role in sorting image content with an eye on its value to the enterprise.

Technology Editor Peter Coffees e-mail address is

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