Handheld Storage

New handheld storage devices offer increased capacity, but IT faces new compatibility, cost and business suitability challenges. Read up before you buy.

January 16, 2004

5 Min Read
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The amount of data you intend to store will influence your device decision, too. For smaller backups, most laptops and desktop systems include external optical devices that let you burn CD-R/RW or even DVD disks. For the average user, 650 MB of data on a single CD is plenty. This isn't enough capacity for an entire system, however, and makes sense only for individual use. Of the two, a CD-R/RW is more affordable--though DVDs hold up to 4.7 GB of storage, the media is expensive.

Interactive Buyer's Guide

Use our interactive charts to select the right handheld storage options for your needs.

If your need for speed and space is greater than what a CD-R/RW or DVD can offer, an external portable hard disk might be more efficient. Disks of this sort come in a variety of sizes, capacities and costs.

External tape is still an option--but not the best for an individual backup. External tape media is costly, even the smallest tape drive is rather large, and tape is intolerant to dust and dirt.

All of these are mechanical solutions, of course, so you must decide if your users can handle a storage device with moving parts. As for memory-based devices, this market has undergone huge advances. See, for example, our Nov. 25 2003 sneak preview of Forward Solutions' Migo ("Leave Your Laptop at Home,"). USB flash keys, like Sony's MemoryStick technology, are small enough to fit in your pocket. But the media you intend to back up must support the device and have a built-in reader. And if you switch among a laptop, desktop or PDA, you should select a format that is common to your most frequently used devices.For many external devices, the most common form of connection is the humble USB port. In the small storage realm of USB keys or drives, speed isn't a problem. When you're transferring the entire contents of your hard disk to a backup-attached drive, however, slower Full-Speed USB won't cut the mustard. You need the 480-Mbps goodness of Hi-Speed USB (see "USB by Any Other Name," below).The less-common connection alternative is IEEE 1394, or as it is more popularly known, FireWire. With a maximum speed rating of 393 Mbps, IEEE 1394 can be found in most camcorders and many of today's x86 PCs.

Older connectivity options, including parallel port, RS-232 serial port and SCSI connections, usually are not available on portable devices. If you have a machine that doesn't have USB or 1394 connections, consider getting an add-in card in PC-Card or PCI format.

But Is This Business?

Portable storage can be quite a boon. The obvious application is backup for mobile users, who present a constant data-loss threat through theft of the laptop or incidental damage to the hardware during transport. Providing these users with an external hard disk is an excellent way to minimize data loss.

Other forms of portable storage may not appear to be as useful in a pure business sense, but don't judge hastily. Key chain and similar memory devices can help eliminate the hopelessly out-of-date floppy drive and provide a way for administrators to move data without the hassle of burning a CD. In fact, server manufacturers, recognizing the need for accessible storage, are now placing USB ports on the front of their devices. You can update drivers, move small amounts of data and perform other data-transfer functions from this point of entry.Of course, there is a security issue here: If it's easy for you to access your data this way, it is for others, too. If your organization uses best practices, however, such as logging out of the server console before leaving the station, this shouldn't be a problem.

Always Back Up

Another common use for portable hard disks or external DVD/CD burners is for quick insurance backups. Because there is a limit to space on the server, it often makes sense to back up users' data individually on a regular basis, and especially before scheduled upgrades or changes to the network system. If sensitive data can't be put on a public share, but doesn't fit locally on the user's space, an external optical device is a good solution. Likewise, when users need to exchange a large amount of data, it can be faster to burn it to a CD-RW disk and simply pass the disk around, instead of waiting for a time-consuming network transfer. You can even save money by designating one machine that connects via USB or 1394 to burn CDs, rather than equipping every machine with a burner.

When purchasing portable storage, we recommend that you go with a familiar company. This market has 10,000 knockoffs that all look like good deals. They might be, but support after the sale is more important than a few bucks off the top. Make sure that the seller can take care of your business needs and any RMA (Return Materials Authorization) you might have in a timely manner.

Steven J. Schuchart Jr. covers storage and servers for Network Computing. Write to him at [email protected]. Post a comment or question on this story.

One of the great ease-of-use technologies is the Universal Serial Bus specification, developed by a nonprofit industry group, the USB Implementer's Forum. The forum created USB 1.0 and the upgrade, USB 1.1. Things got even better with the introduction of USB 2.0, a much faster, backward-compatible specification. Simple enough, right? Well, soon enough the marketers at the USB Implementer's Forum got hold of the branding. Now we have several new names for old things. USB 1.1, at a signaling rate of 1.5 Mbps, is now known as Lo-Speed USB. USB 1.1, at 12 Mbps, is called Full-Speed USB. And USB 2.0, at 480 Mbps, is Hi-Speed USB.

For more ease and greater confusion, the group has also introduced USB On-The-Go and Hi-Speed USB On-The-Go. With these supplements, you can connect devices--say, a digital camera and a PC--without a host between them.

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