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Data Longevity

One of the things that we don’t like to talk about in software engineering is the effect of recurring obsolescence.  In an industry that likes the new and shiny, the old and busted is a persistent thorn in our side.  Not simply because it is old, but because there are issues in the management of the obsolete.

Consider data storage.  In my lifetime, there have been several data storage media changes that have represented big steps in “removable” storage technologies: paper tape, punched cards (my first program was written on punched cards), mag tape, 8” floppies, 5.25” floppies, 3.5” floppies, CD-ROMs, flash drives, and so on.  The highway behind us is littered with the remains of dead storage.  This information on these devices was clearly meaningful enough to want to store it, but now what do you do when with it?  And if you have a means of reading the data, how do you actually interpret it now?

I have a box in my attic with a box of floppies for the Apple II that I’ve been saving.  Why?  I don’t know – it seemed like a good idea at the time.  I know that in that box is the source and the assembled output of the last video game I wrote when I was 16, “Invasion of Everything”.  I believe I still also have the golden master for the first game I wrote, “Suicide!” (which was not bad for a 13 year old, but only stands out in history as being the very first video game with punctuation in its title).  I don’t have an Apple II.  I don’t even have access to one, so this information is effectively dead.  And if I did, I know that existing copying/reading programs would probably fail of IoE, since I recall needing to use the mysterious track 23 for extra storage (any takers for pulling the data?  I’m happy to open source it…)

So what happens when the information is more compelling than an Apple II game?

Read about how some dedicated engineers recovered a petabyte of data from obsolete tape, using the ONLY available tape drive that would read it, recorded from the Lunar Orbiter.  It’s frightening how delicate this recording was and what lengths they went through to recover it.

Published Monday, May 04, 2009 11:35 AM by Steve Hawley
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