Will "green-bar" paper -- which data centers have used for decades to pump out computer reports -- go the way of green eyeshades and paper spreadsheets? It just might, thanks to a technology that's been around for a while, but is now emerging as a mainstream product.

COLD (computer output to laser disc) storage systems use some of the components of document imaging to replace printed computer reports with images that are stored on optical discs. "COLD is simply the electronic storage of printed reports," said Tom Derella, manager of services at Unisys Corp. "It's the electronic image of information on a mainframe or PC that's been archived on optical discs," he added. The images can be purchase orders, invoices, bank statements, budgets, accounting reports and even tax returns -- virtually any kind of report or form that a computer generates. COLD systems can handle volumes ranging from a few thousand to tens of millions of pages per month.

According to Derella, banks embraced COLD early on because it enabled workers in customer service to view the same statement that a caller had in printed form. "Before COLD, workers often had to refer to data reports from different systems that didn't represent the actual image that was in the hands of the customer," he explained.

But the big benefit of COLD is the cost savings it generates. The nation's businesses and governments generate 54 billion pages of computer reports each year that end up on paper or microfiche. With COLD, an agency can cut its annual supply costs by as much as 30 percent. Some customers have seen paybacks from their COLD systems in less than a year. COLD has been used on mainframes and PC systems for a number of years, but the benefits have been largely ignored by most businesses and governments, who viewed COLD as a fringe technology offered by obscure companies.

That's changed in the past 18 months, as IBM, Wang and FileNet have jumped onto the COLD bandwagon and have begun to offer client/server solutions. As a result, the market is taking off, growing at a rate of 50 percent to 60 percent a year, according to Mason Grigsby, a principal with Output Strategies Consulting. "The market is being driven by the introduction of client/server systems from the major vendors," he said. "They have really legitimized COLD as an acceptable technology."

The COLD systems these and other vendors offer have three key components: the software for recording, indexing and retrieving images, a server running UNIX or Windows NT, and a storage system. Client/server COLD storage systems cost an average of $220,000, according to Grigsby. High-end systems can run over $2 million, while COLD systems that are based on a PC-LAN architecture can cost as little as $65,000.

The basic features of COLD haven't changed since its inception, but the types of storage available are evolving with today's technologies. Some organizations are beginning to install COLD systems that use RAID (redundant arrays of inexpensive disks) for high-volume applications that require fast access to the images. At the other end of the spectrum, some COLD customers are using low-cost, recordable CD-ROM drives to archive computer report images which can be easily distributed to users with a PC and a CD-ROM player.

CAN COLD WARM UP GOVERNMENT?

With the public sector typically lagging behind the private sector in the adoption of technology, it's no surprise that COLD storage is hard to find in government. In the federal sector, the Internal Revenue Service uses COLD to store the electronic tax filings it now receives. The Securities and Exchange Commission also uses COLD to archive certain types of bank filings. The Bureau of Public Debt, the federal agency in charge of savings bonds, uses a high-performance COLD system, equipped with a 111 gigabyte optical jukebox and 20 gigabyte RAID, to store document