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Data Ghosts of Hardware Past

8-inch floppy disk drive compared in size to 3...
8-inch floppy disk drive compared in size to 3.5" floppy disk of 1984 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 4, 2012 Deadline
July 2012 Issue

Data Ghosts of Hardware Past

Iomega Zip disks were, depending on your experiences with them, the greatest idea of their time or one of the worst digital storage media ever sold. The Zip disks I own were purchased between 1995 and 2002; until recently, I was unsure why I kept them.

As this summer began and I was preparing to teach summer school, my wife stumbled upon a printed version of my website from 1996. There were several pages of text on the topics I would be discussing in class. My wife offered to scan the pages, which was a better option than retyping the content.

Then, I remembered we had an old Zip 250 drive and stacks of disks stored in a cardboard box. As readers of this column know, I encourage everyone to make weekly, monthly, and annual backups of their data. I’ve migrated data from one medium to the next on a regular basis. My creative writing resides on floppies, Zip disks, CDs, and external hard drives. Even my oldest writings from elementary school are on a network drive.

Like so much technology, after a decade the Zip disk is an amusing artifact. It was revolutionary in the 1990s: a diskette that could store 100 megabytes of data. How large was 100 megabytes in 1995? Windows 95 required only 50 megabytes of disk space and most hard drives were 512 megabytes for technical reasons.

For several years, I was able to store my business, school, and personal data on two Zip 100 disks. In 2001, I upgraded to an external Zip 250 drive and was able to store everything on one disk the size of a 3.5-inch floppy.

After some digging through four or five boxes, which I vow to label better some day, I located the old blue Zip 250 drive and a Zip 100 disk labeled “Scott’s Website.” I brought these relics inside and exhaled slowly as I plugged the drive into my MacBook Pro’s USB port. The drive made a familiar noise: a whirring sound as it communicated with the computer. Inserting the disk with a loud “click,” I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Faster than my laptop recognizes a USB drive, a blue Zip disk icon appeared on the screen. Opening the drive icon, there were several folders with various versions of my website. It worked! I was able to copy the 1996 documents to my laptop’s hard drive.

The ghost of hardware past had saved me (and my wife) hours of work recreating documents.

When my wife and I moved last year, it was an opportunity to take several boxes of old computer hardware to recycling kiosks. Many retailers offer rebates and credits for old hardware, too, so we traded in an old printer for a new color laser printer. We recycled two printers, piles of data cables, ancient memory modules, and a box of old PC expansion cards.

Friends and family know, maybe all-too-well, that we also “recycle” by passing along our older computer hardware. From motherboards to scanners, we like to find homes for our still-useful hardware castoffs. Yet, among the recycled items you will not find any storage hardware.

We do not recycle old hard drives or other storage media. I’ve removed hard drives before passing along a computer to a new adoptive home. Our data don’t need new homes, and I insist on keeping the drives and devices that can read those data.

Because I started using computers in the 1970s, I’ve seen storage devices and media come and go. Some media are popular for decades, while other media come and go with little notice.

Even today, if I want to archive data for months or years, I use a CD-R or DVD-R and burn the data to disc. My expectation is that CD drives will remain available and functional for another decade or more. Yes, CDs and DVDs are declining in popularity, but the discs last longer than magnetic media or flash memory devices. Since my archives are carefully stored, I’m not worried about scratches, light or heat damage to a disc.

My wife and I have had our house flood. Discs survive water, while other media do not. We know this from experience. Thankfully, my Zip disk collection was on a shelf or those diskettes likely would have died.

While optical media might be around for several more years, I can’t recall the last time I saw a 5.25-inch floppy drive. I don’t even have a way to access my old 3.5-inch diskettes. Shopping online, you can locate a 3.5-inch external drive, but I haven’t had a new computer with a diskette drive since 2003.

In 2001, Apple decided Mac users could do without floppies and that was a sign of things to come. When Apple introduced the MacBook Air, they decided the CD/DVD drive was a thing of the past. Apple and other companies are also replacing hard drives with various solid-state drive (SSD) technologies.

I plan to have at least one external CD/DVD drive and several external hard drives for many years to come. Apple might be right and our data are heading into “the cloud,” but I want my data to be accessible. I’m also uncomfortable with my personal data being stored on a hard drive owned by Apple, Google or some other company. It might be paranoid, but what’s to stop an employee from accessing files in a massive data center?

The university where I work is asking us to store data via Google’s new online file archive. The claim is that we will “always” have access to the documents. Internet storage options don’t work if you lose Internet access, and my experience is that the campus network isn’t reliable. A disc or a hard drive doesn’t require a network connection.

Late in the spring semester two professors were struggling to retrieve a journal article from Google. I reached into my computer case and found a CD-R containing copies of the journal.

One of the professors laughed and said he didn’t know anyone still burned discs. I do, and it turns out to be a good thing.

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