Monday, February 27, 2017
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How Much Is Enough?
Walter Salm, Editor

Sitting on my desk, next to my computer screen, is a 3 TB USB-3 external hard disk drive, purchased at Costco. It's been there for a couple of years, acting as a backup. Sitting on the floor behind the tower is a much smaller, 500 GB HDD. Hanging over the left side of the tower, plugged into a USB extension cable is a 256 GB USB-3 flash dongle. A 16 GB ultra-miniature flash dongle is plugged into one of the two available front-of-the-case USB-2 ports. Inside the computer box is a 1 TB main HDD, and I use another 16 GB flash drive for my active work files.

Why all the redundant storage? Because I'm paranoid and live in fear of a major HDD failure. I still live with the mantra, "It's not if your hard disk drive will fail, it's when it will fail." I have weathered several of these catastrophic crashes over the years, although it has been six years since my last one, and it was a humdinger. I am way past due, hence the paranoia. Safety and security have also guided my work, which I never save to the main HDD, except as backup number 4. My primary storage media is a 16 GB thumb drive, and when I get ready to shut down the computer at night, I copy the files to 2 additional dongles and then to the hard disk drive. I border on being obsessive-compulsive when it comes to data storage. Working this way has the bonus advantage of making my work very mobile when I travel with a laptop computer. I clip the thumb drive onto a lanyard, loop it around my neck and I'm good to go. I will never carry a thumb drive in my pocket because I lost a flash drive that way once on a transatlantic flight. Been there, done that.

I remember oh so well my very first hard disk drive. I installed it in the blank front panel area that had been reserved for it in my IBM clone desktop computer. It was a whopping 20 MB, and at first, I wondered what ever I would do with all that storage space. In those days (1986-87), desktop computers were mostly all the same physical size, had a very simplistic and straightforward design, and could be put together like a Tinkertoy set. There was the flat computer case, designed to support the weight of a monochrome CRT monitor, and it contained a rather simple (by today's standards) motherboard. There were a whole bunch of "expansion" bus connectors on the motherboard, and this very simplicity lured me into the business of assembling computers for those unfortunate souls who didn't know how to use a screwdriver. I developed a small side business of computer assembly and resale, customizing machines for my customers. MS-DOS was king, and there were no hard disk drives involved — at least not for a while.

Those computers typically had two floppy disk drives — one to hold the operating system and application software; the other held data files. The 5-1/4 in. floppies held just one megabyte each. Software was tightly written and not very memory hungry. Installed RAM was typically 256 kB, and this in turn limited the size of the software that could be run. For a while, a very convenient way of upgrading such a PC with a HDD was a skinny hard disk drive on a plug-in board, designed to take up 2 of those precious slots on the ever-present expansion bus. Miniaturization had not yet caught up with the desktop computer industry. These plug-and-play HDDs were usually 20 to 40 MB.

I soon found myself adding RAM to computers that came equipped with additional empty memory bus sockets, and this was touchy, because memory chips in that era were extremely sensitive to static discharge. I learned to wear a grounded antistatic bracelet when performing this operation.

Fast-forward to 2017, and I have all this HDD and flash drive capacity hanging on my computer — a large portion unused. This is because I don't download movies or TV programs or games. To be sure, I stream TV shows and movies and videos on my computer or TV set, but I rarely record them. I do have several hundred music CDs ripped to my computer's HDD, and every so often, I will update the copy of them on an ultra-miniature 64 GB micro-SD chip that plugs into my car's stereo. I continue to be totally amazed by the amount of music I can plug into my car's Kenwood infotainment center this way on a chip that's smaller than my little fingernail. And six years without a crash. Have HDDs been that much improved? And no anti-static grounding wrist straps needed.  

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