Horse Sense #60 

In this issue:
  • Free (and Less Expensive) Alternatives to Microsoft Office
  • Is Tape Backup Going the Way of the Dodo?
  • To Drive Faster, Don't Move Anything
  • Avoid Costly Computing Errors: The Trust Deficit

Free (and Less Expensive) Alternatives to Microsoft Office

Thinkfree offers free Microsoft Office and Adobe PDF compatible document creation on their web site,  The Writely word processor, now owned by Google, allows you to upload Microsoft Word documents, save them to your local machine, publish to the web, and post to blogs at its web site,  Word processing is offered by These free sites come with storage space on the web for posting your creations.  At, you can download a suite of applications compatible with Microsoft Office for free.  There is no telling how long these web sites will be around because there doesn't seem to be any financial incentive in giving away the ability to author documents.  Most analysts don't see these offerings to be a serious threat to Microsoft's Office $12B cash cow.  In fact, Corel WordPerfect Office has often been reviewed as more capable than Microsoft Office.  It will even run in a Microsoft emulation mode and reads older versions of Microsoft Office files better than Microsoft Office itself.  But, even though the WordPerfect suite costs much less, it has lost market share over time. WordPerfect has lately regained some ground, but Microsoft still owns the lion's share of the office productivity market partly because Microsoft Office is loaded on more new machines than any other application.  Still, Microsoft is concerned enough about this market that they plan to offer an Office Live Suite featuring online word processing and spreadsheet software, according to a 9/14/2006 Businessweek article.

Is Tape Backup Going the Way of the Dodo?

Hard disks are replacing tapes in the backup process.  Hard drives now offer many advantages over tape:
(1)  Hard disks have greater native capacity than tapes.  Hard disks are also increasing their capacities faster than tapes.  And, while they are getting larger, hard disks are also getting faster and smaller.  Expect to see terabyte (1TB=1000 gigabyte) disk drives hitting the market early next year.  750GB disk drives are already available.
(2)  Hard disks can be read and written to millions of times.  Tapes are normally retired after 50-150 uses.
(3)  You can read and write to hard drives much faster than tape (the data transfer rate is higher).
(4)  Tapes can take many seconds to position themselves to begin reading or writing.  Hard drives take milliseconds (the latency is lower).
(5)  Hard disks can serve needs other than backup.  Our network attached storage server stores our backups and also serves as an archive file server for files we don't use as often.
(6)  You can read and write to multiple hard drives in an array at once.  This ability allows for much faster backups and restorations.  It also can be used to provide added reliability and redundancy.  Lastly, you can back up multiple machines at the same time.  Tape backups can't provide you these benefits economically.
(7)  Hard drives are ideal for imaging the hard disks on a server for disaster recovery.  You can back up and restore hard disk images much more quickly than you can restore file by file backups from tape.  In addition, you can mount the image on a backup hard drive and copy individual files out of that image.  Thus, an image file on a hard drive can serve as a file by file backup as well.
(8)  Hard drives are always on and respond to even the first read and write request very quickly, unlike tapes, so they are ideal for continuous data protection schemes.
(9)  You can mount a hard drive in another machine and read it with much more ease than you can mount a tape. Tapes require the same backup software, type of tape drive, and data alignment relative to the heads on the tape drive.
(10)  Hard drives make it possible to compare data between backup sets and move only the changed data over your expensive wide area network link.
(11)  Hard drives are cost effective.  Newer disk drives at the highest capacities are always more expensive than lower capacity drives, but even the newest 750GB drives cost less than 66 cents/gigabyte.  LTO-3 400GB tapes are 19 cents/gigabyte, but they can't stand a fraction of the reads and writes that hard disks can.  When you factor in the tape drive cost, a disk based solution can be cheaper to buy.  Labor-saving automated disk backup can pay for itself quickly.  In addition, hard disk images allow rapid recovery from a disaster.  A single disaster recovery could pay for your disk based backup solution because down time is so expensive.
(12)  Hard disk backup appliances exist that make it easier to build a reliable backup solution supported by a single vendor.  For a low-end Windows-only solution, you might want to consider something like the Sonicwall CDP appliance (  For more flexibility, capacity, and the ability to physically move data off site, you should consider Idealstor (  Those with multiple operating systems, larger amounts of data, or multiple sites should look at a midrange solution like that from Unitrends (  Of course, Iron Horse represents these and other fine manufacturers.

To Drive Faster, Don't Move Anything

Will hard drives go the way of the dodo, too?  Chips (silicon based storage devices) are already replacing rotating hard disk platters in many places.  For example, key chain drives and some portable music players use chips to provide great data transfer capabilities and music playback.  Consider these good reasons for storing information on chips rather than on a rotating disk: (1) Chips boot up faster.  (2) Chips read and write as fast or faster than disks and their ability to switch from accessing one file to accessing another is about a thousand times faster.  (3) Chips are much more resistant to shocks, like being dropped.  (4) Chips run cooler.  You might not need a fan.  (5) Chips are smaller.  (6) Chips are noiseless.  (7) Chips weigh less.  (8) Chips take less power.  Your battery will last longer.

Why isn't everything run by chips now?  A gigabyte of chip storage costs 30-60 times more than hard disk storage.  Still, if you only need a small amount of memory (or another factor like low heat or power consumption is a big issue), silicon-based storage is a great way to go.  For example, most routers and firewalls enhance their reliability and speed while decreasing their size, power needs, heat output and overall cost by using chips to provide program storage.

It is now possible to build a PC without a rotating disk, but your next machine won't be built that way.  Instead, there is a pretty good chance solid state memory will be used in one of two ways.  Computers with boot files on chips will start up quickly.  And, if they cache critical files on these chips, they'll be quicker than today's machines.  So, you may have more than one drive letter on your new system, and one of those drives will be a silicon disk.  The second, more interesting, design incorporates large amounts of nonvolatile RAM onto hard disks.  These hard drives will transparently and dynamically cache the most useful information.  Boot times will be quick and applications will accelerate, but the hard drive itself will automatically decide what data should be stored for rapid access in silicon.  Less common reads and writes to the disk platters will occur in larger, more ordered chunks, resulting in additional speed and reliability.  As drives may only spin when needed, use of non-volatile RAM will lower the power draw.  Expect to see these drives in portables and backup solutions soon.

Avoid Costly Computing Errors
During my 20 years as a computer salesman, consultant and dealer, I've seen many common computing mistakes that can be avoided.  I'll only be addressing one of them today.  We'll deal with others in future Horse Sense newsletters.  Use these tips when working with your IT providers to save money, time, and grief.  If you have a favorite tip or story, please write us about it!

The Trust Deficit

If you don't trust your salesperson's or consultant's advice, you need to be doing business with another salesman or another company (like Iron Horse).  A PROFESSIONAL salesman doesn't just want your business now; he wants it forever.  A professional salesman won't knowingly lie to you because he can't afford it.  If he loses your trust, he'll lose your business and anyone you might refer to him.
A professional has to meet your present needs, anticipate your future needs, get past misconceptions, and help you get to where you want and need to go, even if you don't see it yet.  One of the biggest mistakes we've seen people and organizations make is to treat their salesmen, consultants, and suppliers as disposable commodities.  They aren't.  The right business partner makes a BIG difference.  Would you choose a pacemaker simply because it was the lowest priced?  Would go under a cardiologist's knife if you got the idea he didn't care if you lived or died?  If you walked into his office and said "I feel fine," should he send you home immediately with no further examination?  Your business health is important to you.  Select your business partners carefully.  Partners who mutually care about the health and success of each other's businesses can produce amazing results.  The members of Iron Horse want to show you how they believe in these partnerships.
Case in point:  A federal crime-fighting agency was building an extension to one of their networks.  They needed share information with other crime-fighting organizations.  Their proposal requested Cisco specific equipment, but alternative suggestions were requested as well.  The  requested Cisco product was old, overpriced, underpowered, and expensive.  They also wanted to use Cisco proprietary networking protocols.  This meant that anyone connecting to this network had to use Cisco equipment, not the equipment they already had.  The winning Cisco solution was $2.7 million.  Our comparable, higher-performing, more flexible solution was $0.9 million.  An even more capable solution we proposed was $1.1 million.  Oddly, our proposal was technically disqualified because it didn't run the proprietary Cisco protocols when it turns out that one piece of the Cisco equipment they bought didn't run it either.  Predictably, integrating with partner networks has been slow and rocky.
Another case in point:  This same agency wanted hundreds of very expensive networking adapters, but we told them that they were a bad idea.  Instead, we recommended much less expensive ones that used more standard technology which was expected to have a much longer lifetime.  They insisted on buying the more expensive adapters.  We offered them a competitive price anyway, telling them not to buy the current stock because they were defective and under recall by the manufacturer.  Unfortunately, they ignored our advice and went with a pricier alternate supplier of those adapters.  When they arrived, they plugged them into brand new computers.  The adapters promptly caught on fire, damaging the computers as well.  Since the recall had already been issued and the agency informed, the manufacturer would not honor the warranty.
The lesson? In a nutshell, find someone you trust enough to tell you things you don't want to (but may need to) hear.  Get to know and understand one another.  Then work together as a team to solve your problems.

©2007 Tony Stirk, Iron Horse