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 "It's the electronic image of information on a mainframe or PC that's been archived on optical discs," he added.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 images of the seven million savings bonds that Americans buy every month. The $900,000 system was built by LaserAccess and Network Imaging Corp.
At the state and local level, COLD systems are harder to find, but they do exist. Unisys sold a number of systems to local governments, including the cities of Jacksonville, Fla., and Durham, N.C. The product, called Coinserv, was developed by INSCI and is sold, installed and supported by Unisys. In both cases, the cities began with a small installation in one or two departments, such as payroll or utilities, and are now letting the system grow, according to Richard Loibl, COLD project manager for Unisys. Another Unisys customer is the Phoenix Police Department, which uses COLD to store its incident reports.
One problem that has hampered government acceptance of COLD is, oddly enough, cost-justification. "Local governments don't always have the data available to analyze their return on investment for COLD," said Loibl. They have to find out what they are spending on both paper and microfiche. Measuring the gains in productivity when a worker switches from paper to COLD is also hard to nail down, according to Loibl.
Once the decision is made to purchase a COLD system, customers have to be careful about matching the right system with their particular requirements. A mistake that customers often make is underestimating the size of their system. They tend to focus on how fast the COLD system can record computer documents to optical storage and pay little attention to the system's retrieval performance.
A true multi-tasking system, such as mainframes and UNIX, can retrieve significant amounts of documents without a sweat, but Windows-based systems, which are not multi-tasking, can suffer serious performance degradation. "Users get into trouble when they buy systems based on price," said Grigsby. "They don't understand the dynamics of retrieval."
One new trend is the merging of COLD with document imaging systems. "The major vendors are integrating COLD and imaging into a single system," Grigsby explained. The reason is simple. Workers want to view computer documents right along with scanned documents. COLD and imaging together simplify the tasks of workers while improving their productivity. For governments, that may be all the justification they need to warm up their interest in COLD.
Imaging creates electronic images of documents from paper. Scan a piece of paper and you convert it into an image, which can be indexed and stored by your computer on a magnetic or optical disc.
COLD creates an electronic document from data that's already inside your computer. For example, when your computer formats data to create an invoice or purchase order, COLD captures an image of the formatted data -- just as it would appear when you print it out -- and then indexes and stores the image.
For both imaging and COLD applications, the user ends up retrieving and viewing images of information. The only difference is their origin: one comes from a piece of paper, the other comes from data that has been formatted into an electronic document by your computer.
So what's the benefit of COLD? Well, it allows you to view information exactly as others see it. All those invoices, purchase orders and bank statements we receive exist only as rows of alphanumeric data in the computer. COLD allows a customer representative to view information -- your utility bill or monthly bank statement -- exactly as you see it on paper at home. COLD also is a convenient way to store and retrieve data that is typically printed out on paper, such as those so-called "green bar" reports departments and agencies pore over.
In the vendor community, imaging and COLD are both treated as subsets of document management, the umbrella term for everything that has to do with electronic documents -- scanned images, COLD images, word processing documents, spreadsheet documents and so on -- and the software for managing and processing these documents: workflow, optical character recognition, forms processing, text retrieval and more. -- TN