Next to watching your PC's processor quickly become obsolete, the most puzzling experience in computing is trying to figure out where your PC's storage space went. When you first got the computer, you didn't think you'd ever fill its jumbo drive--until you started updating your software and your operating system.
Invariably, newer versions of the same old programs chew through hard-disk space like locusts after a seven-year sleep--with the Windows operating system in the lead. Now we have the Internet, which makes it all too easy for us to binge on data.
Figure that you and your employees will be downloading a lot more files in the future--not just e-mail, reports and other textual information, but also charts, spreadsheets, slide shows and highly graphical and space-hungry Web pages. You may be out in front of the e-commerce trend with your own Web page and server. Or you may host your own workgroup intranet or extranets that support your Very Important Vendors and Customers. (If you aren't now, you probably should.)
Plus, Internet browsers make liberal use of desktop hard drives to store cookies, Microsoft's ActiveX software modules, Java applets and cached Web pages in order to expedite Web navigation. And they do it in such sloppy fashion that a couple of online sessions can easily take a 25MB-to-30MB bite out of your drive.
You can nurse a single drive by regularly deleting unnecessary files, e-mail, attractive-but-dated business presentations, and backup versions of things. But those are hard, time-consuming choices. In the long run, it's easier and cheaper to simply add larger hard drives to your office PCs and to store as many files and programs on them as Windows' short-sighted storage conventions will allow.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Running The Numbers
Admittedly, adding a drive won't give you the speed boost you get from a processor or system memory upgrade. But additional storage space does help Windows' memory caching and gives workgroup members the freedom to focus on their jobs, instead of PC housekeeping.
Not so long ago we paid $1 per megabyte for storage--and not long before that we paid $10 per megabyte. But now drive prices are less than a nickel per megabyte, depending on the size and speed of the drive you select (the larger, the cheaper). In fact, you can get 40GB of storage in Maxtor's new DiamondMax Plus 40 for about $350--that's less than a penny per megabyte. You only have to look at the system configuration Windows 2000 requires to know that you'll need every byte.
Unlike some PC upgrades, you can add a drive without throwing away the old hard drive. Each of your office PCs is probably equipped with a drive controller able to accept one, or maybe two, additional IDE hard drives. If not, you may have to add another drive controller like Promise Technology's Ultra66 card, which should be available for under $60, in order to connect an additional drive.
When the inevitable happens and you have to upgrade to entirely new PCs, you can take these drives with you or add them to your local area network. Drives undergo constant improvement; but if they aren't filled up, they don't obsolete as quickly as other PC components.
How To Pick 'Em
While hard drives sport a mass of technical specifications that fascinate PC enthusiasts and PC magazines that feature them, most aren't worth your or any business owner's time.
Longtime brand-name manufacturers like Quantum, Seagate, IBM and Maxtor offer nothing but fast IDE drives. Minor differences in speed are classified primarily by the revolutions per minute (RPM) that the drives' platters spin. Most 10,000 RPM drives are faster than 7,200 RPM drives, which, in turn, are faster than most 5,400 RPM drives. Also, larger-capacity drives are usually faster than their smaller cousins, so you can shorten your evaluation process by buying a larger drive with higher RPMs.
Within those classes, evaluating the small differences in drive speed only becomes worth your time if you have a special purpose in mind--a graphics workstation or LAN server, for example. The choice for the past couple years has been Seagate's 10,000 RPM SCSI Cheetah, with its large cache and use of the familiar SCSI bus. IDE drives like those listed in the accompanying table are easily installed in desktops, but the Ultra ATA/66 bus they use to communicate with the computer is much slower and less robust than the Ultra2 SCSI or Ultra160 SCSI buses that Cheetah uses.
Preparing For The Unforeseen
You probably don't plan to drop your drive before installation or scrape your shoes on the carpet and zap its controller card with a spark of static electricity, but these things happen more often than you think--and they can damage the new drive. Drives in the accompanying chart are covered by warranties, but there's no way to reimburse you for time--and, maybe, data--lost from an installation gone wrong.
Consider a drive rated to withstand at least 150 Gs (Gravity Force units), which should cover the typical low-level drop. Seagate's new Barracuda ATA does that one better; it is completely encased in an aluminum SeaShield that gives it the ability to withstand 300 Gs of shock and helps keep errant static discharges off its circuit board.
PC problems in other areas can sometimes show up as drive troubles later. Vendors report that more than half the drives returned to them are working fine. To head this off, most brand-name drives include software tools to help you ascertain the condition of the drive before it's yanked and sent back.
Quantum's Fireball LCT line includes its Data Protection System, a comprehensive diagnostic suite that's embedded in the drive. Western Digital, Seagate, IBM and Maxtor have diagnostic routines of their own. And all of these manufacturers' drives include SMART technology, which uses predictive failure analysis to warn you about impending problems. This information can be read by a third-party program like Symantec's Norton SystemWorks 2000 or LAN administrative tools.
Installing a drive isn't always easy, but it's within the average entrepreneur's capabilities because it doesn't require any special tools. Drive kits usually include everything you need: mounting accessories, user manual and the software for configuring the drive to your system. If you're only installing one drive or are pinching pennies, you might want to take a swing at it. If the task goes well, a drive can be installed in under an hour.
But there's always a chance not everything will go smoothly. So if you'd rather leave the job to someone else, check with your local computer store or the company from which you bought the equipment for a professional to take care of it. For example, CompUSA charges a minimum of $70 to install one drive at its store and a minimum of $120 to do so at your business. Given the cost, you should prevent a repeat of the experience by installing the highest-capacity drive you can afford.
Advanced Storage Options
As mentioned before, if it's a server you're equipping, the best drive is the Seagate Cheetah. But if its drive bays are maxed out, you might turn to network area storage (NAS) devices.
Instead of shutting down your network to work within the system itself, you can simply attach a NAS server to a network adaptor, configure it and have it operate like any other computer on your LAN. It can provide storage for all connected PCs with the added advantage of bypassing--and thus, taking some of the file-saving load off--the main server.
It's a new, fast-growing storage category, with Quantum's Snap Server family the most popular option by far. A Snap Server looks like a small, monitorless PC with one or two drives, and it ranges in price from $499 for 10GB to $1,799 for 40GB of storage.
That's pricey as hard drives go, but stacks up pretty well against the $3,000 to $10,000 you'd pay for the alternative--adding another LAN server. Also, adding or upgrading a general-purpose server usually involves shutting down the network at night or on the weekend so work isn't interrupted and paying a premium for installation.
Basically, a drive upgrade of any kind should take up as little of your time as possible. Spend a little more money upfront, have it done by experts, and that investment should pay for itself many times over in enhanced productivity for you and your employees.