Wednesday, March 22, 2000

Virtual disk drives

Wednesday, March 22, 2000

The mystery of eternally dwindling hard drive space, in terms of unfathomability, ranks alongside such condundrums as why certain people insist on responding to each and every question with a drawling "what?" or "eh?" when they've heard you perfectly well, or why some people insist on facing the wrong way when waiting for their bus (surely I'm not the only one to have noticed this phenomenom?). I can't help you get to the bottom of the latter two enigmas, but you'll be pleased to know that help is close at hand where sourcing extra storage space is concerned. One possible solution is to employ virtual storage areas on the web. While this is no substitute for having files stored on your own local hard drive they can help to lighten the load when you find yourself struggling to find a home for your latest digital acquisition or you need a place to store backup copies of your irreplaceable documents. Access to these virtual drives is restricted using a personal username and password to ensure that your data is stored away securely. It is then up to you to decide whether to use this space for your own personal storage requirements, or to pass on the login details to your friends so that they can access your files as well.

The emergence of web drives is clearly good news for file sharers since anywhere between 20 and 500 megabytes of data can be stored on each new account (depending on which company you choose to host your files). Furthermore, you can create as many new accounts as you like as long as you use a different contact e-mail address each time.

Much like free web site hosts the companies who offer web drive services set up business and fold in the blink of an eye, so to keep up you're going to need a well maintained list of what's hot and what's not. Well actually, in the land of virtual drives it's more like a comparison of what's hanging onto life by a thread and what's deader than the proverbial dodo. Nevertheless, Drive Seek fits the bill very nicely. This site provides up to date listings of all the web drive services currently available, reviews, FAQs, a very comprehensive customizable virtual drive search engine and an informative newsletter. If that doesn't quench your thirst for knowledge the online storage section of is also home to a number of enlightening appraisals.

A particularly useful feature proffered by virtual drives is that you can simply copy and paste files straight from the web to your virtual drive to be downloaded at a later date. Over at Freediskspace this function is known as a 'Web Clipper', Freedrive incorporates a similar tool known as 'Surf N' Save', and you can expect the other companies to follow suit in the near future. To make use of these tools you will need to either install a browser plugin or a small desktop application. Virtual drive browser plugins aim to integrate the new 'copy to web drive' option with your current web browser, while virtual drive desktop applications coexist alongside your existing data storage devices (accessed via 'My Computer') and purport to emulate your local hard drive as accurately as possible. In effect all you have to do to upload data to your virtual drive is drag the files you wish to upload onto the icon representing your virtual drive. Note that some of these browser add-ons utilize javascript, so make sure your browser and/or internet security options are set to allow javascript to run.

One question I am frequently asked is "can I use Getright or Gozilla with web drives?". The quick answer is yes in most cases, but there are several caveats you must familiarize yourself with first. To begin with, some web drive services will require you to be logged into your account while downloading. If the server detects a lack of activity it often kicks you out so that you can no longer access your files. Also, if you are using Freediskspace, currently the most popular web drive, you will find that the links to your files are changed every so often (roughly about once an hour), so be prepared for your links to go dead in the middle of a transfer.

Allowing people to use download managers in conjunction with web drives clearly poses a conflict of interests for the web drive providers. Web drive companies are funded by pay-per-click, rotating ad banners or similar forms of advertising - assuming people actually click on them while they are downloading. If you are visiting the home page of a web drive service merely to import direct links into your download manager the opportunity of viewing these ads is drastically reduced. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the people at Freediskspace et al aren't exactly ecstatic about this proposition and so will do everything within their power to make life difficult for you.

The master plan then is that if you can't get your download manager to cooperate, as a last resort you will be forced to make use of their file manager instead and thus be coerced into viewing their ads. It is a constant arms race between the two parties. The file sharing community devises a way to use a download manager with a specific web drive, and this method works very well for a short period of time. When the web drive administrators realise what is going on they put a stop to it by changing the way file requests are sent to their servers so that we the downloaders have to go back to the drawing board and think of a new solution. This tit for tat battle goes on until the web drive people get so sick of toiling in vain that they decide to start charging for their services to deter people from exploiting them, or they throw in the towel and discontinue their services altogether.

The growing pains don't end there unfortunately. Those of you with fast connections may be limited to downloading at much slower rates than your modem is capable of, and some web drive companies set a limit on the maximum amount of data you are permitted to transfer in a single day. Although the situation is improving all the time, certain web drives do not support the resume function. Another threat to the future of web drives is the role they predictably have played in hosting illegal copyright protected media. If the powers that be deem the web drive companies to be willfully facilitating piracy they could well pull the plug - that is if the people running these servers don't engage in virtual harikari first.

If all that hasn't put you off, here's an example to demonstrate how you can get your download manager to communicate effectively with web drives (in this case we'll be using Freediskspace). Once you have logged into your account the first thing you must do is uncheck the 'enable multiple up/downloads option' and hit the refresh button. Now if you hover your cursor over one of the files you wish to download you will notice that rather than a javascript link, a real web address will appear in your browser's status bar. All you have to do now is drag the files into your download manager and select a place to store them in the usual way. Alternatively you could right-click on the files, select properties from the context menu and using the copy and paste function tell your download manager where the files you wish to download are located. If you plan to try this I would suggest downloading one file at a time and refreshing the window periodically so that you receive the latest file locations, even if this necessitates babysitting your PC until the task is complete. One technique that seems to work quite well is to use the Freediskspace file manager to download the largest file in a set whilst using Flashget, Getright or Gozilla to transfer the rest. This will prevent you from being logged out and the file locations from being altered.

The mechanisms used to allow you to transfer files from web drives using a download manager are very diverse so a different set of instructions will be necessary in each case. To find out how to use your download manager with other web drive services try searching my blog using the name of the web drive in question as the keyword.

Is it really worth all the hassle though? Probably not; if you can get your files elsewhere I would give web drives a miss. Nevertheless, there may come a time when the files you require are only available on a web drive and you do not have the luxury of an alternative source. For times like this it helps if you are familiar with all the various web drive workarounds, and in any case, it never hurts to have a few more tricks up your sleeve.


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