Jukebox Management Software

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 01, 2000
by Lowell Rapaport

Jukebox management software puts CD storage on line
Every business has data -- information that must be saved, stored, and referenced. Because of their reliability and low cost, CDs (compact discs) are the favored choice for many organizations. CD jukebox management software combined with hardware (See the supplemental guide this month) provides a complete storage solution that not only securely stashes company data away, but also allows all employees on a network easy access to it.

Jukeboxes are one of the few peripherals that cannot be operated by a simple driver or drive extension. Management software is required and one is useless without the other.

In addition to providing company-wide access to information, the software also provides controlled access to a jukebox's contents. One of its functions is to cache frequently used files to memory for faster access and so wear and tear on jukebox robotics is reduced. In some cases, jukebox software also enables the preparation and recording of data onto recordable CDs.

Optical storage solutions (like CD) have traditionally been found in large organizations since they were the ones with large amounts of data and deeper pockets. However, in recent times, due to price drops, simplified operations, and the fact that every business is generating more data then ever, optical storage solutions are making their way into smaller companies.

Kim Workman, vice president of sales at Qstar Technologies based in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., comments, "I think what is really holding small businesses back is a lack of awareness and knowledge. They just don't know about these types of solutions and what they can do for them." Qstar has recently formed new partnerships with other vendors and VARs who work with smaller organizations. Workman says, "We started out selling to mostly to government agencies and big businesses because they were the ones who were interested and who had the budgets to pay for them."

The trend appears to have caught on elsewhere as well. Dr. Kirit Patel, CEO of Andover, Mass.-based SmartStorage says," The primary reason optical storage solutions are just now making their way into small businesses is price drops -- both hardware and software prices have dropped in the last year or so."

"It is not that small businesses don't have the same problems or needs as big companies -- they do. It is just that price has traditionally been the barrier," Patel explains. "They need to know about these products and solutions. Folks can't go into a CompUSA and buy this software, they need an integrator to help install a solution, just like the big guys do," Patel says.

Accessing CDs in a jukebox is the most fundamental application of the management software. There are two methods for access control. First is where the jukebox's contents are seen as a single virtual drive on the network that Windows then serves to users. This keeps the software simple and requires network administrators to rely on Windows' security tools to control access to the jukebox.

The second method is where the software itself acts as a server. It has its own domain and behaves more or less independently from Windows. This makes the software more complex, but it provides more management features and potentially better security.

Caching and queuing is the second major function of the software. Both are used to improve access speed. When users request files on different discs, the CD in the drive has to be unmounted, removed, and placed on its shelf, before the disc of interest can be mounted in its place. This process can take several seconds, even in the fastest jukeboxes.

CDs only store 650 megabytes per disc and in heavily used systems, it is improbable that all the files being requested will all be on a single CD. If too many users are requesting files on too many different CDs, frequent disc swaps can occur. This is called thrashing and it causes performance loss, as well as wear on the jukebox.

Queuing reduces thrashing by grouping together multiple requests made to each CD. Caching reduces thrashing by keeping frequently used files in fast magnetic storage such as a hard drive or RAID subsystem. When users access a cached file, the jukebox isn't accessed at all and they get their files at the speed of a hard drive.

It is important to remember that no matter how fast a CD-ROM drive is, users will get no more speed than what can be sent down the network. That is why jukeboxes don't use the fastest CD-ROM drives, trading speed for reliability.

Jukebox management software also improves performance by reducing latency, the amount of time it takes to locate and start sending a file. Jukebox management programs are designed with fast databases that can handle hundreds or even thousands of requests at once.

The third major function of the software is the recording of CDs. This is where there is the greatest variety in jukebox software and where functions like user interface and automation become especially important. Recording CDs with jukebox management software is just like recording CDs from a desktop computer, but with the added dimension of multiple user access to recording facilities and the jukebox's ability to store multiple blank CDs. Be aware in advance however, that recording is a resource intensive process that can be complicated and may require additional hardware to run properly and effectively.

CD recording can be done a full disc at a time (disc-at-once), multi-session (track-at-once), or by using packet writing (a file at a time). If you use CD-RW (Rewritable) media, software that supports packet erasing is available. There are two main types of recording: Capacity-based recording which makes a CD only when enough data to fill a disc is available; and Scheduled-time-based recording. The later improves reliability since data is placed on CDs on a regular basis. This keeps the amount of data in the write cache to a minimum.

Some jukebox management systems dispense with recording entirely. The main reason being that recording takes up many precious resources and can leave users waiting to access files. The alternative is to have a separate tabletop recording deck. Or, choose not to do recording from the software at all. Recording can be done via ordinary CD recording software on a desktop PC as well. This simplifies the jukebox management software leading to cost savings. But it also means that the CD recording process can't be automated and users will have to go "outside the jukebox" to submit files for inclusion on optical storage.

Another feature to look for is offline media management. Chances are you'll still be making data CDs after a jukebox is filled up. You will have to get another unit, or move older or less-frequently-used CDs to shelf storage. Some management systems will keep track of CDs outside the jukebox, storing the location in a database and prompting a system administrator to install the CD when it is requested.

Offline media management is useful only if a small subset of the CD library is accessed regularly and the rest of the discs aren't touched frequency enough to warrant the purchase of additional jukeboxes.

The combination of features you need is dependent on your security needs and how much complexity you're willing to deal with. Caching and queuing are built into virtually all CD jukebox management systems, but they vary in how much control they provide and deep the system looks into the queue.

CD recording is even more complex since there are so many parameters to set. First decide if you want to use the jukebox management system to record CDs. Doing so makes it easy for users to place their files in CD storage. If users will only read CDs, the jukebox software doesn't have to record and a separate system to make CDs will work just as well. If users do need to make CDs, then there are many different ways to implement recording.

Roy Slicker, CEO of Pegasus Disc Technologies in San Ramone, Calif., summed it up with his "$64,000 quote," "I think the biggest factor behind the growth and movement into the small business market is acceptance. This technology has been around for a few years now and has proven itself reliable. Folks are finally catching on and acknowledging the benefits."

HOW WE TESTED
With the small business owner in mind, the key features we looked for were flexibility in management and level of control, simplicity of installation, and cost.

We installed all of the software packages on Windows NT servers with Service Pack 3 or later. We used Adaptec SCSI cards and jukeboxes from NSM, Plasmon, and Kodak for our tests.

Beyond simple feature analysis, we also connected several client computers to the jukebox server over a network to test for speed and latency. We looked at how fast large files were served across the network and we examined how long it took for the jukebox management system to locate a file. Latency is the primary performance penalty for jukebox management software, so we gave special weight to the software's ability to cache files and manage request queues. Arguably, these factors are even more important than user interface issues since users have to deal with them every day, whereas a system administrator would only have to directly manage a jukebox occasionally.

SmartStor Archive for CD and DVD
Rating 93

Smart Storage's SmartStor Archive products are Windows friendly and are simple to manage. SmartStor presents a face very similar to the Windows Explorer user interface and volumes are easily given drive letters from Windows. Windows NT serves the volumes and security and access controls are assigned from Windows' own interface. Versions of SmartStor are also available for Novel Netware and Unix.

SmartStor manages discs by creating volumes or collections of multiple discs under one directory. Moving discs to and from SmartStor volumes is accomplished through a simple drag and drop interface. We created a volume within SmartStor and dragged icons of each CD we wanted to include in the volume icon.

Tom Watson, systems coordinator for the Englewood Bank in Florida uses the SmartStor product and a jukebox to store electronic images of the checks that come through the bank."We have had the solution in place for about a year and a half now," Watson explains. "We are required by law to keep all checks for seven years, and previously we had no choice but to keep all of the paper checks around."

Watson and his team love the new solution. They have no more messy paper trails and a lot more storage room. Then there is the issue of quick access. "Instead of taking hours or days to find a check and deal with a problem, it now takes minutes," Watson says. This leads to quicker turnover and happier customers.

The Englewood Bank has a total of five branches in the Florida area. Watson works out of the command center that has about 20 employees. All 20 of them, as well as employees in the other branches, have access to the checks across the LAN.

The software offers caching via its Express Cache tool. Express Cache copies CD data, even entire CDs, to hard disc. It also includes informational tools that let system administrators know which files are used most frequently. SmartStor Archive for CD and DVD comes in two versions, a low cost version for read-only archives, and a second with CD recording capability.

SmartStor provides a number of options for recording CDs. Continuous recording of files is available with the Universal Disc Format (UDF), a new feature in SmartStor's latest version. If you prefer to use non-erasable CD-R discs, the UDF can still be used to support packet writing. This permits multi-session recording, where individual files can be appended to a CD-R disc. For single session or disc-at-once recording, data is recorded using the older ISO 9660 disc format.

SmartStor also lets users prepare disc images for recording to CD. An image is placed on a special volume SmartStor has been told to check regularly. When SmartStor spots a disc image, it proceeds to record the image on a CD automatically. Alternately, users can put their files in a designated folder and when there is enough data in the folder to fill a CD, SmartStor will automatically record a CD.

Arranging all these recording parameters does take a bit of time and planning, but the software's learning curve is shallow. SmartStor is easy to use in general for anyone familiar with Windows or any other GUI. It is as close to plug and play as a jukebox management systems can get.

CDXtender
Rating 87

CDXtender is OTG's jukebox management system for CD jukeboxes. Like SmartStor, CDXtender uses an Explorer-like interface to manage discs and volumes. Unlike SmartStor, CDXtender doesn't offer versions for Novell or Unix. A CD file system (CDFS) is integrated with NT file services to make the jukebox emulate a virtual disc.

CDXtender caches the directories of all the CDs in the jukebox. It also caches individual files and blocks of data. Automatic queue management is available to reduce disc thrashing and offline disc management is incorporated into the product.

Offline disc management also works at the disc pack level with CDXtender. If a jukebox uses disc packs that incorporate electronic ID (such as some NSM jukeboxes), CDXtender will keep track of their location and, when mounted, will not have to poll every CD.

Recording is a separate add-on feature in CDXtender. Packet writing is not available, but the software is programmable to migrate data to a CD when a storage threshold is reached, at a fixed time each day, or when a particular file type, such as a database file, is encountered. CDXtender recording supports single-session and multi-session CDs. If a CD is not completely filled up, additional data can be recorded to the same disc later on.

Although CDXtender must run on a Windows server, Macintosh and Unix clients are supported when the appropriate filing systems are installed.

CDXtender is slightly more enterprise-oriented than the other products in the guide and is therefore more complex and more expensive. At the same time, it allows for growth, and is a product worth consideration if you are a growing company.

Optistorm CD
Rating 86

Most jukebox management software uses some sort of embedded database to keep track of files on CD volumes; not Optistorm CD. Instead, it relies entirely on Windows NT's own file system to keep track of CDs and files. This helps to keep administration simple and ensures that Optistorm CD will scale with your Windows NT servers.

However, Optistorm CD does not include a key feature available with most other jukebox managers, the ability to record. Just know in advance that if you use KOM's Optistorm CD, a separate desktop computer and CD recorder will be needed to make CDs.

That said, Optistorm is easy to configure and get up and running. Its Explorer-like interface is clear, easy to understand, and has drag and drop convenience. Optistorm CD caches data at both the file and block levels. Block-level caching lets Optistorm CD serve just the part of a file that is requested by a user rather than the whole file. This saves bandwidth, lets the user get the data they want fast, and reduces the overall load on the network.

Optistorm is a good product that is easy to set up and configure. However, without CD recording capability built-in, users will have to find another solution for recording CDs.

Enterprise Library Manager
Rating 87

Allstor's Enterprise Library Management (ELM) system is a powerful piece of software capable of managing CD and DVD jukeboxes. All of the program extras that make it a good system for managing storage on a large scale also threaten to get in the way when managing CD libraries.

The first apparent characteristic about ELM is its Unix heritage. The user interface is fairly minimalistic and there is no drag-and-drop disc or volume management. Nor does ELM use Windows NT's file management tools. Instead, it creates its own domain and server, which must be logged into separately -- even on the machine the software is running on.

There is an advantage to this, however. ELM can be set up with an Apache Web server. With this option installed, an administrator can access ELM's set up options from any computer on a network with a Web browser.

ELM can be administered over the Internet as well. Remote management for other jukebox management programs that rely on Window NT's file system usually require changes be made from a Windows client. This feature makes ELM an attractive option if your network includes non-Windows machines.

However, don't let the Unix-like look and feel of the program fool you. ELM is relatively simple to use. And if you expect your network to scale up to larger storage devices, such as tape, it is an excellent product. It supports a wide variety of disc and tape formats.

All the flexibility does comes at a price, however. It will cost you about $4,500 to operate a 100 slot jukebox, more than any other jukebox management system. But, if you need to manage a broad range of storage devices, or have ambitions to do so, AllStor's ELM is a very good option.

CD Direct
Rating 85

Qstar is a relative newcomer to the software category for Windows NT. The company does, however have experience making software for Unix systems. Qstar CD Direct doesn't use Windows NT's file management. Instead, like AllStor, it builds its own file server with a separate domain.

CD Direct's administration program is a tabbed window not unlike the control panels commonly found in Windows, so those familiar with the Windows OS will find it familiar and easy to navigate. CDs can be grouped into logical volumes.

The software supports both read and write caching. The read cache can be set up to 30 gigabytes for each CD volume. Packet writing, single, and multi-session CD recording is also supported. CD Direct normally flushes its write cache and writes a CD when a user adjustable capacity is reached.

It also has special features for creating CDs for distribution. The software makes multiple copies of a CD image and provides tools for editing tracks and sessions. The recording software creates CD duplication jobs, and even records different CDs in separate recorders within the jukebox.

Corando Gallegos, chemist at the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas has discovered the beauty of optical storage. Gallegos' team of 15 people investigate helicopter crashes mainly for the Army, but for other branches (Navy, Air Force etc.) and some private companies as well.

Using the Qstar software and an HP jukebox Gallegos, who is heading up the "optical project," is able to archive all of the team's reports and findings. The next phase of the project, Gallegos says, is to make the data accessible not only over the department's NT network, but via the Web as well.

"Previously our field investigators had to carry big huge manuals out in the field", Gallegos explains. Once the data is available on line, investigators will be able to access it from any location instead of carrying the big books.

Previously all of the records and reports were stored as paper copies with some random CDs floating around. "Now that we have all of these reports filed and stored, we can do data analysis on them and identify trends and other ways history has repeated itself so we can better do our jobs," Gallegos explains.

The only complaint Gallegos had about the Qstar software was with its security features. "We have been having some problems adding some security layers to the system." However, Gallegos says, "The Qstar people have been really wonderful and very helpful with everything we have tried to do."

If CD Direct has an Achilles heel, it is that it is a new product for Windows NT and some of its features have not been programmed yet. For example, CD Direct supports time-based cache flushing in addition to capacity based flushing. However, the scheduler has not yet been programmed into the product's graphical interface. It would have to be programmed from a command line interface.

Security is another matter. Developers at Qstar have not yet added security to the product. For offices or networks that need to store sensitive material, administrators may want to think twice about using CD Direct. Or come up with an alternate way of protecting the data.

On the other hand, at $1,850 for a 100-slot jukebox, CD Direct is one of the least expensive jukebox management systems available. Small offices that need to keep costs down and who can work around the security issue until it gets updated, may find CD Direct to be just the right product.

Investore CD
Rating 91

Investore CD is, by far, the simplest of all the CD jukebox management programs available. Yet, beneath its simple facade lies a system with a number of features found in more complex products.

The user interface is entirely limited to a single screen that reports the status of the discs, commands, and activities that are initiated through pull down menus. It's not a standard user interface, but it's efficient and easy to learn.

The filing system is read only. Recording is not supported. However, the software will read both CD and DVD-ROMs. Surprisingly, only the directories of the CDs are cached and there is no data cache. The program does however perform queue management. Randy Brown, technical administrator for the City of New Orleans, La., uses a CD jukebox and the Investore software in a pretty cool way.

" We are using a lot of GIS (Geographic Information System-or mapping software) applications to work on new projects," Brown explains. This requires photos of the area, lots of them. They are also making maps. All of the aerial photos of the city are stored on CD and made accessible via the NT network to everyone on the planning commission.

Brown's division (about 20 employees) has had the solution in place for about six months, and they are very happy with it. Previously they had a Unix network and they had numerous problems trying to work with their software on the network. "We upgraded to Windows and the Investore software, and now we can display multiple images at once, something we couldn't do before, and the access speeds are quicker," Brown explains.

Interestingly, Investore CD doesn't create a single virtual disc. Instead, when the jukebox is mounted to the Windows filing system, each disc shows up as a separate folder. A drive letter can be individually assigned to each folder/CD but this could make it difficult to give direct drive letter access to each CD in a large jukebox. According to Pegasus, combining multiple discs into a single volume is high on their list of upgrades to implement.

Pegasus is a fine product for smaller jukeboxes or for networks where CDs do not have to be grouped together into larger logical volumes.

WHAT WE THINK
It's hard to judge a winner among all these products. They all work as promised. If your benchmark for success is mounting a jukebox to your network so users can access it as another network volume, then all the products are successful. Even from the point of ease of setup and use, there is little to complain about with any of the products. Those that have non-standard user interfaces still have a shallow learning curve.

Non-administrators should have no trouble learning how to use any of these programs. The only ones that may cause some difficulty during installation are those programs that side-step Windows NT's file system and insist you log onto a separate domain.

It's where the products differ that personal preferences comes into play. Some of the products are more comprehensive, providing all the tools needed to manage every aspect of a CD jukebox from grouping CDs into logical volumes to recording in the various CD formats. SmartStor Archive and AllStor Enterprise Library Manager fall into this category. AllStor goes even farther to manage other types of jukeboxes and libraries.

Other products are minimalist, providing only the bare minimum needed to get a jukebox on line. If you are interested only in sharing CD-ROM databases and your need for recording CDs is low, then Investore CD, Qstar CD Direct, or Optistorm CD will save you money.

Then there is the need for scalability. Products that use Windows NT's file system will scale with the server; that is they will handle as many users as a Windows NT server. Some companies also have Unix versions of their products. In theory, they should scale up to even heavier user loads. However, for a small business, Unix is often an expensive and unnecessary option. Software that bypasses the Windows NT file system should scale up well, but you pay for it by losing Windows' administration tools and security. Qstar CD Direct and AllStor ELM bypass Windows NT's file system; AllStor has good security features in place; Qstar has none.

Overall, in our opinion the best product is SmartStor's Archive and Access products. They are comprehensive as well as being available on Windows, Novell, and Unix platforms. They support DVD and DVD-RAM now, including full rewrite capability. The Archive option which permits recording is expensive, but the Access product is reasonably priced.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

Will the software support jukebox?
Jukebox software vendors generally do a good job at supporting all jukeboxes that are shipping. However, they may not always get to the latest models as they ship or they may not have support for an obscure jukebox by default. Contact the software vendor about support for a specific jukebox. Some vendors list the jukeboxes they support on their Web sites.

Do you want the software to record CDS?
By what method?

CD recording support in jukebox management software is an expensive option, and you will need robust equipment to implement it properly (such as an uninterruptible power supply, a fast server, and SCSI cards). If you have a limited need for recording, a separate recorder may be more cost effective. To duplicate large quantities of CDs, a separate CD duplicator is more efficient. If you do want to record CDs, decide whether you want the recording process to be automated or under manual control, and whether you want to let users initiate the recording process or if it should be under system administrator control.

Does your organization need logical volumes to keep information secure?
Will the software let you group CDS into logical volumes? What security measures are in place in the software?

Logical volumes group several CDs together. For example, CDs 1 through 7 are for the accounting department, and 8 through 14 are for the sales department. Security measures will prevent users in one department from seeing another department's files.

How scalable is the Jukebox management software?
How many Jukeboxes and slots can be supported?
How many users and simultaneous requests can be handles?

Scalability in software goes in two directions. The number of users who can simultaneously connect to a jukebox and how many jukeboxes and CDs can be managed at once. The former is generally limited by what Windows NT can handle, and the latter by the number of SCSI ports and devices that are installed on a server.

What is the spftware vendor's tech support and update schedule?
Most software vendors regularly update their software every six to eight months. Windows has gone through some major changes; There have been three service packs to NT 4.0 in the last year, and Windows 2000 is bound to have some problems as well. So be sure to know what each vendor's support policy is in advance. more on Jukebox cont'd

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