Information Technology

Why the LS-120 Still Survives

I’ve written about the LS-120 on this blog before but I thought about it again today.  You see, yet another Micro Center sales paper showed up.  There were big sections for USB flash drives and SD cards, but nothing listed for organizers.  I paid a visit to eBay to find a bunch of SD travel cases aimed at family vacationers, but nothing for desktop storage and organization.  There was absolutely nothing for USB flash drives either for carrying or organizing.

Today’s product engineers are really a clueless lot.  None of them take into account existing practices and infrastructures when designing a new toy.  Yes, it is all well and good to make a USB flash drive key ring, but if you want your new media to sell in large quantities it needs to find a niche in the backup market.  Engineers of yesteryear knew these things.

First we had the 5 ¼ inch floppy which replaced the unwieldy 8 inch floppy.  Rather than replace it, most engineers found ways to double its capacity until it reached 1.2Meg.

IBM fought an up-hill battle when they introduced 720K 3.5 inch floppies.  We already had 1.2Meg floppy drives in our machines combined with a stack of disks and multi-drawer floppy organizers capable of holding a hundred or more floppies per drawer.  Yes the 3.5 inch had a hard case and could fit in most suit shirt pockets, but they didn’t hold as much.  Then IBM pushed the storage capacity to 1.44Meg.  The storage increase combined with the introduction of laptops pushed the 3.5 inch floppy into the world.  Floppy organizers and carrying cases appeared for the new media size.

Most people were neither patient enough nor rich enough to use tape as their primary backup.  The tape drives which could be purchased for under $400 were ice-melting-in-winter slow and typically only held 120Meg.  Later they boosted capacity to a claimed 250Meg, but, that was only if things being backed up weren’t already compressed.

The 5 ¼ floppy people were a bit pissed with all of this.  They went off and talked to the people who were designing the CD-ROM and guess what?  The media for the CD-ROM just happened to be designed so people could re-use all of those 5 ¼ media organizers and transport cases.  Early versions were read only, but provided software vendors with a method of shipping a single media unit instead of boxes of floppies.

Notebook users still wanted a convenient method of backing things up.  Low and behold the LS-120 appeared on the market and just happened to be the exact same size as the original 3.5 inch floppy.  In fact, you could read and write those 3.5 inch floppies in the same drive so it became the defacto standard drive in laptops.  Later models could store 240Meg on a single disk.  All of the same 3.5 inch floppy containers worked for these new disks so adoption was quick.

The CD crowd came out with both CD-R for the regular end user and CD-RW for those wanting to be just a bit kinder to the environment.  Yes, CD-R media sells in spindles of a hundred for $5 if you shop around, but landfills are only so deep.  Neither of these media really solved the “working backup” problem.  They were supposed to solve the long term backup problem until studies showed the media only retained its data for about five years unless you purchased the very expensive “archival quality” version of the disks.  Still, very few items last the 7-12 years which could be required either in court or by the IRS.

Rotating project backup really doesn’t have a better solution than the LS-120 today.  Yes, many people are just alternating between two USB hard drive enclosures and holding their breath, but, that’s not good.  Hard drives made today are not of the same quality they were during the peak of SCSI server drives.  Back then a 5 year MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) could be trusted.  Today you find out IDE and SATA drives achieve their 5 year MTBF by putting in fine print the drive is to remain in power saver mode 70-80% of the time.  SAN administrators have to continually point this out to MBAs when explaining the cost of a 1TB SCSI based SAN vs. the sub $100 1TB SATA drive.

Many people work as writers, business analysts, technical architects, etc.  We all have one thing in common.  The bulk of what we create for each project can easily fit inside a 120Meg boundary.  Usually we can backup multiple projects onto these media and keep a rotating set of backup media on our desk with special copies stored at a friend’s house or some other off-site location.  The media is both cheap and durable.  It is fast enough for backup purposes and supported by most Linux and Windows versions.  To top it all off, most of us have something which looks quite nice to store the media in.

Until somebody comes up with something nice that will let you keep a rotating set of backups organized for the other forms of media trying to fill this niche, the LS-120 will continue to have an active market.