July 19, 2004 -- For more than a year, we've been evangelizing the importance of establishing a standards-based "Digital Infrastructure" as the first step in migrating an increasing volume of jobs to digital printing. The feedback has been refreshing; there is a good deal of interest in the concept, and many readers have asked for more detail. This article is the first in a series in which we will define and describe the components that integrate to create a standards-based digital infrastructure for printers who plan to 'get digital'. The potential of JDF is meaningless without infrastructure to support it, and building your own standards-based foundation creates solid ground for integrating tomorrow's technologies to meet the needs of your customers. The current transition is a good time to start. The Foundation Integrated, cohesive, standards-based components allow you to own the appropriate foundation for your digital business, so you can be the printer your customers want you to be. A Digital Infrastructure consists of computers, storage devices, network cabling, switches and operating systems that support an organization's digital operations. You probably have most of these things, but they may be old or proprietary. You need an open digital infrastructure to use--or better yet -- blend the best-of-breed technologies that can streamline business processes, minimize waste of time and materials, and allow you to advantage of what JDF has or will have to offer. And there's more. There are business savings to be realized by integrating your production systems with your business systems. Integrated, cohesive, standards-based components allow you to own the appropriate foundation for your digital business, so you can be the printer your customers want you to be. The most common component of Computer Integrated Manufacturing is obviously the computer. Each business discipline has or should have a fairly robust computer called a server that (a) connects to the company's main computer, and (b) manages the department's affairs. As we plan ahead, for example, we must remember that every bindery machine we expect to respond to a JDF message must have a computer attached to receive the JDF signal, and this "application server" will connect and be managed by the Main Bindery Computer, which connects to the Main Production Computer, which connects to The Main Company Computer. You get the idea. Consensus opinion is to distribute processing among groups of small servers; they should all speak the same language or easily communicate. The Network The technology to connect or 'network' all these computers is another component of Digital Infrastructure. The widely accepted standard that we all use Ethernet, is faster and more affordable than ever before, and is the common carrier of digital data in today' business world. Networking used to mean carrying a magnetic or optical disk from one computer to another. Embarrassing but true, we even gave it a name: 'sneakernet'. Nowadays, Gigabit Ethernet is the standard data highway for moving large files. It should already be the backbone of your Digital Infrastructure, connecting your file server to your LAN switch to provide the fastest access to files for users. Storage You should plan to store all business data in a single 'virtual' pool and be able to move a file from one of these sub-systems to another with the click of a mouse, or automatically. The core of Digital Infrastructure for the printing and publishing business is data storage. How we file, access, and protect the data we use to make money is the most important discipline of computer science for our industry. Printing companies make and manage enormous files; we've seen shops where eight people needed 2 terabytes of storage capacity to protect their customers' files. Optical media was long ago replaced by RAID storage, where the system can actually afford to lose a disk drive without losing the data on the disk. Unimaginable, but true; and today there are price/performance options in RAID technology enabling you to match the price of [data] real estate to the need for speed when accessing the data. Common categories of storage systems are on-line, near-line, and off-line storage. Each has its place, and their effective deployment can be measured in cost-effective use of storage space and be crucial in the long-term value you provide your customers. Moving forward, you should plan to store all business data in a single 'virtual' pool and be able to move a file from one of these sub-systems to another with the click of a mouse, or automatically. This benefits you by enabling two things: first, you turn data into Information by making it available to the right people at the right time; second, you can protect a single data set more effectively than you can protect data scattered from the front office to the warehouse. It is true that data storage technology is more complex than 'sneakernet' or stacking archive CDs against a wall. However, in the Digital Age, files are money to those in the printing business, and justify an investment in secure and manageable storage. We'll go into greater detail on Storage in next month's article. In the meantime, take a vacation -- it'll do you good.