Network+: Coming to cart you away

Do you have all your critical graphics and data stored on a 5.25- inch SyQuest cartridge? asks Nick Valentine. Did you say yes? Oops...

It may come to be known as the Great SyQuest Quake of 1997, an alarming event that undermined and cracked the foundations of what had hitherto been seen as the most solidly established storage medium of them all.

The 5.25-inch SyQuest cartridge has been with us since the early Eighties: a removable Winchester drive that once offered the best of all worlds - access times on par with an integral hard drive, near-line storage, data transportability, systems sharing, data security and fast back-up.

Initially available in 44MB format, the cartridges are now also available in formatted capacities of 88MB and 200MB.

SyQuest can boast that their drives are used "across the entire spectrum of data storage environments and applications", and "have special appeal to those people who need to save and transport data-intensive applications, including desktop publishing, imaging, multimedia and music composition".

The 88MB is the most popular variant, accounting for the bulk of SyQuest's estimated 2 million users and 9 million cartridges installed worldwide. This could add up to almost 800,000 gigabytes of data that are now urgently looking for a new home.

Since early July, users of the 88MB SyQuest drives have found it virtually impossible to get servicing, support or replacements. Most retailers have abruptly dropped SyQuest-compatible 5.25-inch drives from their data storage ranges, and can offer refunds only to customers whose drives fail under warranty.

This is scant consolation for those SyQuest users who suffer the ultimate nightmare; having a sole drive fail, leaving them locked out of their data on cartridge.

The London-based image consultants Wolff Olins are typical of the graphic/ publishing houses that have relied on SyQuest in the past. David Jones, the company's IT manager, says he became aware in early July of a looming problem.

"We're now being told we're just not going to be able to get repairs or replacements for any drives which fail," he reports. "We've got three working now, and if one if those goes down I'm going to be faced with the need to migrate the whole organisation to a new format."

With more than 500 cartridges around the company, that poses a serious problem.

Specialists such as 20/20, which offers technical support for the Macintosh, can offer transfer from cartridge to other formats - usually CD-Rom - but this is not cheap, at pounds 30 per cartridge.

Alex Hams, an engineer at 20/20, says that SyQuest is almost entirely to blame for the crisis.

"This has been brewing for months. The first problem was the increasing unreliability of drives. Two years ago most of the 88MB drives on the market were Grade-A tested. Since then the standard has progressively decreased. The last batches were Grade C or D - maybe 60 per cent reliable.

"And for at least a year now, it's been virtually impossible to get drives serviced or repaired by SyQuest UK.

"It looks as if they're desperately trying to get users to migrate over to the 3.5-inch EZ135 drive - but that format has fallen flat on its face. It simply doesn't offer the same value for money as the Omega Zip or Jaz drives. Now I'd say they've ended up with the worst of all worlds.

"They don't have an attractive new format, and now they've made the established one problematical as well. "

SyQuest denies trying to push users out of 5.25-inch cartridges. Angela Skinner, sales manager at SyQuest UK , says that they continue to give "100 per cent support and back up" for the 5.25-inch format.

"We're aware of the rumours, but don't understand the basis of them. It's a horrible thing to have to say, but we can only conclude that retailers aren't giving customers the full story," she says.

"Yes, we would like to see customers move on to the 3.5-inch format; 5.25-inch is getting a little long in the tooth now. But we're still fully committed to it.

"We have recently withdrawn the 88MB drives, but our current 200MB drives are fully back-compatible with 44MB and 88MB cartridges."

However, users who have tried using the new 200MB drives have found that there are unpleasant surprises in store.

"They're agonisingly slow," says Alex Hams. "It takes at least four times as long to read and write to any cartridge and, even worse, you can no longer reformat cartridges. If one corrupts, it's junk."

While conspiracy theorists can have fun debating whether the present crisis was engineered by manufacturers or by retailers, it does appear that the unthinkable is happening: one of the largest customer bases in the computer world is currently being left high and dry.

If anyone had wanted to initiate a stampede out of the tried and trusted 5.25-inch format, they could hardly have managed to do so in a more brutally effective fashion. So SyQuest is about to have its wished-for "migration" delivered, in spades; but perhaps not in the direction the company would have wishedn

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