Past Issues of Government Technology

CD-ROM: Low-Budget Image Storage

"The cost for CD-ROM is significantly less than traditional optical discs and comparable to anything in the market, including microfilm."

by / September 30, 1996 0
cheap but
effective means
for storing
images, is
turning imaging
into an
option for just
about any state
or local

The dramatic announcement from Microsoft and Wang last year -- that anyone who purchased a copy of Windows 95 would receive a free image viewer -- led many to believe inexpensive imaging would soon be a reality. But a less-heralded technology is having a revolutionary effect on lowering the cost of imaging, more than any announcement from leading software vendors in the industry.

CD-ROM has quietly, but quickly, gained respect as an affordable medium for storing -- and distributing -- images of documents, graphics and photographs. Dramatically lower costs, for both the hardware and the discs, have made CD-ROM a practical component for just about any kind of imaging application. "The cost for CD-ROM is significantly less than traditional optical discs and comparable to anything in the market, including microfilm," said Michael J. Tenalio, Eastman Kodak's director of marketing for state and local government.

CD-ROM drives have dropped below $200 and have now become a standard drive on any new PC. CD-Recordable (CD-R) drives, which record data and images to CD discs, have dropped below $1,000 and some run as low as $600.

Blank CD discs now sell for as little as $6. With each disc capable of holding 650 megabytes, the cost of storage is less than one cent per megabyte -- the lowest cost of any digital media. According to Imaging Magazine, CD-ROM is not only cheaper than microfilm, but WORM (Write Once Read Many) optical discs -- formerly the most popular format for storing images -- costs six times more than CD-ROM. Magneto-optical -- another so-called "low-cost" storage medium for images -- is about 30 times more expensive.

A second feature that has boosted CD-ROM's popularity is its transportability. Not only does the CD's small size and large storage capacity make it easy to move tens of thousands of images from office to office, Tenalio pointed out, but anyone with a CD drive can view the data. "You are able to transport data physically from drive to drive regardless of the computer system because CD-ROM is based on a common standard," he said.

CD-ROM's transportability is enhanced by the fact that you can load searchable indexes and even application software on the disc. Agencies can now distribute document images and the software to search, retrieve and manipulate them. And thanks to advances in the technology, transfer rates have zoomed from a rather pokey 150Kbps with earlier drives to as much as 900Kbps with today's drives.

CD discs also are more durable than magnetic and optical drives. Average shelf life is between 20 and 30 years, with some estimated to last as long as 100 years. Local governments, often with small volumes of documents that make it hard to justify the purchase of an imaging system, are finding that CD-ROM can make the technology more affordable. Simple applications, such as storing the legislative history for a small city, are now within the realm of possibility.

Some cities and counties find they can store a year's worth of financial records or several years' worth of city-council minutes and resolutions on a single disc. By using CD-R drives, they can copy the information onto discs and give them to workers to use down the hall, in another building, or to take home for work after office hours.

Some local governments are setting up public access stations with CD-ROM and imaging. Simply by placing a PC on a front counter, installing some simplified image-retrieval software and inserting a disc in the CD-ROM drive, local governments can give the public access to an enormous amount of information at a very low cost.

Other local governments are developing full-scale production imaging systems based on CD-ROM. In Forsyth County, N.C., the county's Registry of Deeds is developing what it believes will be the most advanced land and vital records system in the country.

Once in operation, attorneys, paralegals, title searchers and the general public will be able to sit down at 20 workstations and use a simple indexing system to search and retrieve document images. They will insert special debit cards with a pre-purchased value to pay for the document copies they make.

For years, the registry has used microfilm reader/printers to serve the public. But when it came time to replace them, they found that the machines were more than double the price of a computer workstation. The registry also realized that using imaging, rather than microfilm, offered the users a much better response time and provided greater levels of service.

According to Registrar John Holleman, the registry needed a system capable of storing more than 2.25 million document images -- all the county's vital and land records as far back as 1955. "We looked at systems using optical disc jukeboxes, but they were extremely pricey," he said, with prices in excess of $2.5 million for all the necessary hardware. But when he and Deputy Registrar Jim Sink looked at CD-ROM as an alternative, they were astonished at the price drop. "By going with CD-ROM, we will pay only $130,000 for our hardware," said Sink, "and that includes just $25,000 for a CD jukebox from Kodak."

With more reasonable hardware costs, the Registry will be able to implement imaging as originally planned and cut labor costs, which will eventually save the county $1 million. Holleman stated that CD-ROM technology is simply more efficient and more effective than anything else they looked at. Other local governments that have used CD-ROM have reported similar benefits. With low costs everywhere you look -- including CD-ROM jukeboxes, which can hold five to seven discs and cost as little as $500 -- the economics of imaging for small and medium-sized projects start to make sense. And the future only looks better. According to Tenalio, the packing densities on CDs will increase in the near-term, making it possible to store as much as a gigabyte of data or images on a standard-sized disc.

For more information contact John Holleman at 910/727-2903