Rethinking Removable Storage

The floppy drive may be dead, dying or just in decline, but what are the alternatives for sneakernet or a quick-and-dirty backup of a file or two? You offer a list of worthy candidates, however David Morgenstern wonders if it's time to reconsider the whol

For some of you, the floppy has passed into history now that Dell Computer has removed it from its standard configuration. Accordingly, a good number of readers suggested a variety of successors, including optical technology, teeny-weeny hard drives, memory cards and more, each offering its own goodness. But are any of these suggestions on the right track? Perhaps this is a moment to think outside the box and reconsider the whole idea of removable storage.

As I mentioned in a previous column, Dell this month will pass on floppy drives for certain models and instead offer customers a choice of its USB plug-in key devices—for an additional fee.

Here were a few of your choices for the heir to floppys throne:

“You forgot to mention one other possible candidate for succession: Mini CD-RW discs that come with jewel cases,“ Harvey Spiro suggested. “Unlike full-size CDs, these media are roughly the same size as the venerable 3.5-inch floppy, yet can store 210MB. Memorex sells them with jewel boxes for roughly $1 apiece. Granted, the thin cases are much more fragile than floppy disks, and writing to them requires special software and a CD-burner. Still, at a penny for a couple of megabytes, they are certainly prime contenders in my book.“

As many of you pointed out, the low price and pint size of 80mm discs make them an attractive media. Yet as Harvey himself brought up, the discs require special burning software. In addition, theres really no guarantee of compatibility with a drive, especially with those found on older machines as well as slot-loading mechanisms. I would add that the actual dye-base media used for all CD-R/RW discs is susceptible to heat and other environmental degradation (like fingerprints).

Several of you wondered about the 120MB (and now 240MB) SuperDisk format, aka the LS-120. “I have mine on the same controller as my CD burner and I have never had a problem,“ Mike Tuck said. “Reading and writing to a classic 1.2MB floppy also works fine for those few occasions I receive install software on a floppy.“

At the same time, I received a number of pitches for Iomegas Zip format. “The size and form factor of 1.4MB floppies is not dead; only the capacity,“ Greg dUsseaux said.

Of course, these formats work fine for sneakernet. Like the floppy, the cartridges are robust and they operate just like floppies. However, there are relatively few of these drives out on the market, when compared with CDs and floppies. Everything works if you can guarantee that an LS-120 or Zip drive sits at both ends of your workflow. If not, youre sunk.

Finally, Ted Keller observed that while the Compact Flash cards commonly used with digital cameras may be a bit expensive when compared with a floppy disk, they come in a variety of capacities and are very easy to carry around.

Keller added that a reader-writer is “inexpensive to add to any desktop and a simple adapter costing only a few dollars will get a card into any laptop with a PCMCIA slot. In application, Compact Flash is as easy as the USB key to use and just shows up as a removable drive when inserted and goes away when removed. It is fast, simple and carries well in its little plastic case.“

All of the removable memory storage formats are small, robust and their cost keeps falling. So far so good. However, they require a drive to operate. And theres the rub.

Perhaps its time to reconsider the whole idea of removable media for storage? If you really think about it, who needs them?

Removable storage is just that: removable. The removable model comprises a drive that accepts a piece of formatted media. The drive connects to the computer through some interface, whether internal or external. Most drives accept just one kind of physical media, although some support different formats.

Not so long ago, removable storage was a absolute necessity; in fact, at its introduction, the floppy was all the storage you got with a computer. At that time, your so-called primary storage referred to the memory soldered on the logic board. The removable scheme let users easily expand their storage and was mostly economical, depending on how much data you had to store, the cost of the media and its capacity, and whether the format had enough acceptance in the market to bring the economies of scale from mass production.

In addition, the standard connectors on a PC for peripherals were large, power hungry and difficult to configure. Direct connection of a storage device was out of the question. Removable media could be mounted and unmounted easily.

The storage industry has followed this model for decades. I bet most of us can reach a hand out right now and put a finger on a pile of floppies, Zip disks or CD media. And maybe a stack of drives and burners.

However, the introduction of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) changed the equation. The USB interface is ubiquitous, now found on all PCs, from the smallest notebook to the workstation, and even some PDAs. Its a small interface and inexpensive for vendors to implement.

With USB, theres no longer a technical reason for removable media.(Forgetting the need for a boot floppy but thats a totally different discussion.) So a vendor could just take a hard drive, add an ATA-to-USB bridge and plug it in. Or take a block of solid-state memory and add a USB port. Hey, they did.

The total penetration of USB has enabled practical, direct-attach storage devices, such as those memory keys offered by Dell and a host of other vendors.

These devices cut out the middle man. The keys have the positive attributes of removable media: they are small, robust and convenient. And the downside? Expense, but only for the moment.

Does this mean theres no place for removable media? Absolutely not. Still, it makes one wonder.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.