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If you or your business ever does research, you've probably discovered how much ready-made research is available on CD-ROM disks. In many businesses, the savings in time and money more than pay for installing several drives.

But think again. If you can benefit from having several CD-ROM disks in use, you can probably get even more value by having them all hooked directly onto your network. You won't have to pass them around on the sneaker network - a real time-waster.Everyone will be able to access the same central CD-ROM from their own computers. (No network? Where have you been? If you've got three or more PCs running at one address, get them networked now. The difference is like night and day.)

Networking CD-ROM drives is no longer very hard or costly. If you have a Novell network running 3.x or 4.x software, you can run CD-ROMs from the file server. If you own a peer-to-peer network, your CD-ROM drives can be set up to be shared just the way you'd set up local hard drives for sharing.

If you use NetWare at all, you should be running Version 3.12 or 4.1 unless your network is very small, Starting with NetWare 3.11, Novell added the ability to accept NetWare Loadable Modules (NLMs). With NLMs, CD-ROM vendors can load one or more CD-ROM drive controllers directly onto the network's file server. And it seems to cost you nothing, since the NLMs come on every disk packed with a CD-ROM drive.

You could run into two big problems. For one, you may need more RAM memory in your server. We advise clients to check in advance and figure the cost of the extra RAM into price comparisons. The second problem will occur if your company's server stands out of the flow of traffic.

Changing CD-ROM disks as your collection grows could put you right back on the sneaker trail. The solution to that is to buy a CD-ROM stack or changer. (If you buy 2X or even 4X speed drives, you'll save time and money in the long run.) Stacks are composed of a few or a few dozen CD-ROM drives that work independently and can keep going simultaneously.

DEC's InfoServer is one good brand of stack., Changers are cheaper but slower. They're single-drive carousels. Unless the disk you ask for happens to be in the drive, they must first crank through a disk-changing stage. Meridian's changers come with software that lets them run as network nodes ("workstations").

That way, you can avoid the hassle of adding one more NLM (and perhaps additional RAM) to your network. If you're not on NetWare but on a LANtastic, Workgroup for Windows, or similar peer-to-peer network, here's how to share several local CD-ROM drives among some or all network users.

First attach all the CD-ROM drives you think you'll need onto your PCs. Generally, one per PC works best. Next set up each PC to share the drive on which its CD-ROM drive resides (often it's called drive D or drive E). Then set up each PC on the network to read all the shared CD-ROM drives. Finally, check the PCs with CD-ROMs to make sure that your SMARTDRV.SYS or other disc cache software loads after MSCDEX loads.

MSCDEX teaches your DOS operating system how to cope with CD-ROMs. After that, the driver that came with the attached CD-ROM drive loads and teaches DOS how to deal with its particular brand of CD-ROM.

SMARTDRV.SYS's job is to make them all work efficiently. It tries to anticipate what data you'll need and move it off the very slow CD-ROM drive (even 4x drives are slow) and into very fast temporary memory. This is called caching.

Until DOS 6.2 came along, SMARTDRV.SYS couldn't cache CD-ROM drives. If you're using a peer-to-peer for CD-ROM sharing, move up to MS DOS 6.2 or install your CD-ROM vendor's caching software.

For many businesses, it makes good sense to buy add-on software to run your CD-ROM drives, whether you use a Novell or peer-to-peer network. Specialty software makers offer features you can't get from Novell or LAN-tastic. Microtest's DiscServ NLM software lets you install incompatible CD-ROM drives in a network server.

Micro Design's SCSI Express, which predates Novell's NLMs, loads onto the server. There it lets users access CD-ROM drives connected to the server. It's no longer a great deal better than Novell's NLMs, But if you run server disks with one system (such as EISA or IDE) and run your CD-ROMS off a SCSI adapter, it performs better technically and is reasonably priced.

Among the better add-on products, we're fondest of Online Computer Systems' Opti-Net. Its software fools network software into seeing local CD-ROM drives as if they were mounted on the server.

It sets up a peer-to-peer system that can access CD-ROM drives scattered anywhere on the network. But it presents the data virtually as if it were coming from a server. The benefit is that NetWare users can change CD-ROM disks on their own local drives.

There's a drawback, too. To access any CD-ROM drive, the local computer to which it's attached must be turned on. One way for offices to get around this problem is to install (and use) good E-mail software, It'll let folks send messages asking a local CD-ROM "owner" to put in a different disk.

The same E-mail software can also track the "last person out" so that PCs can be shut down for nights and weekends.

We'd opt for Opti-Net over Novell NLMs or Artisoft's LANtastic for one big reason. The vendor's reputation hinges on making CD-ROMs run the way users need them to. In our opinion, Novell and Artisoft ought to license Opti-Net software instead of inventing their own.