Not Fade Away

Twenty five years ago, we backed up data to floppy discs. Compared to what we'd used before - Winchester discs that you could just about carry with one arm - they were a godsend. Light, portable, relatively cheap, with a reasonable capacity of a few dozen kilobytes - enough for all the little programs and documents you wanted to keep. It even took less than a minute to access.

Yes, one of the many storage mediums which were tried was...videotape. And it worked too, but it was slow, and couldn't hold as much as systems which came out shortly afterwards. Like the zip drive, which was good but had the misfortune to be launched shortly before CDRs, which had larger capacity

There were a few problems though, like their habit of going blank if left in bright sunlight, or placed next to a strong electro-magnetic field generator like, for instance, a computer. And there was always some dimwit who carried the only copy folded up in their pocket then couldn't understand why it didn't work.

Another alsoran was tape specifically designed for backing up computer data. In 1992 it was pretty fast, but reading and writing was strictly linear - like music tape, if you wanted to get to a specific part, you had to spool through the rest.

Then twenty years ago we got floppy discs you could carry in your pocket. With twice the capacity - 1.44 MB - you could store an entire novel on one, and with a rigid outer casing it wasn't killed by sunlight or slight knocks.

How many standards of floppy disk were there? There were the 10" discs, the 5", the 3.5", the 3.25" and the 3" - the last supported, as I recall, by almost no one except some Amstrad machines. People badmouthed Sinclair and IBM for using nonstandard hardware, but Amstrad were just as bad.

Then roundabout fifteen years we got...CDRs! Which blew us away with a staggering 704MB, later 800. Enough for carrying five hundred novels.

It was always a dilemma, when putting data onto a CD - maximise use and minimise cost by using up all available space with whatever would fit onto it, or have a simple filing system with one item per disc. Usually, I went for the former.

With the new MP3 format, you could keep ten albums of music on one disc - that cost one twelfth of an album, and later a tenth of that. A bit later with the MP4 video format, you could squeeze a forty minute episode of a TV serial onto one, if you didn't mind waiting two hours to encode each episode on your spiffy 1GHz machine.

Half of David Bowie's discography, on two discs. Amazing, really when you take a step back and think about what you've got used to. One day, I might have time to listen through it.

No more problems with sunlight...but get just a little scratch on the surface and you've probably lost everything. This little detail spawned an industry of protective CDR storage cases - and a habit of buying twice as many discs as you needed, so you could spend hours making backups of your backups to put in cases in a cardboard box in a cool dry dark space.

Jewel cases, paper wallets, double 'book' cases, clear plastic wallets, super-economy clear plastic wallets.... I developed a way of using the cheap ones with home-made paper inlays. The wallets held the disc, the paper did the actual protection. Plus, you could write on it!

Then ten years ago, DVDRs got cheap enough for common use. They looked rather like CDRs, but with six times the capacity, all those TV episodes suddenly took up a lot less space.

Carry 100 CDRs/DVDRs in a soft valise with a handle. Or if you're me, carry 200 - 2 in each pocket, with a slip of paper between them. Is that cheap, or ingenious?

Unfortunately there was still the problem of the scratches, and therefore still the cases and duplicate backups. And eventually we realised that squeezing DVDR-sized data onto a CDR-sized disc actually made the writing process less reliable. Which is why we sometimes made three copies of our data, just to be safe.

A selection of some atrociously bad science fiction movies, which thanks to DVD technology, can inflict themselves on us forever.

We were promised CDRs and DVDRs would last forever, and in a sense that's true - the physical media is remarkably difficult to destroy. It's just the data which lasts five years. That's five years on average, which is why I've got DVDRs from six months ago that won't read, but CDRs from ten years ago that will.

Well, one year ago I got myself a solid-state external hard drive with 1.5 terrabytes. A safe, stable, long term place to back up all the perishable data from my 500 DVRs.

My First External Hard Drive. Looking a bit battered. Just as I was writing this, the shiny, white, new one arrived. The one I haven't told you about yet - oops.

Yesterday it failed for the second time, and I spent all day recovering the data. What caused the failure? Solid state drives are essentially gigantic USB memory sticks, designed for serial storage, never file manipulation. What constitutes file manipulation?

I deleted one zero-length file - and the whole partition became unreadable. Now that's what I call delicate.

Which is why today, my new non-solid state 2TB external hard drive should be arriving. Larger, less volatile, slower but less inclined to lose 200GB because I did basic housekeeping.

So as of today, I'll have an external drive to store everything I'm not working on at the moment, a solid state drive to back that up, and the original DVDRs that were backups from...a different hard drive.

And now I get to stop worrying about data storage.

Heh. Right.


  1. I’m assuming you’ve heard of the Dead Media Project?

    Their site is temporarily down but link I provided takes you to Wiki article.

  2. Actually no, I hadn't heard about it. Interesting stuff.

    As the producers of The Gong Show realised, the supply of failure is neverending.

  3. I'm know several men who still have 5-inch floppys ... :-)