Where's That Old 286 Machine When You Need It?

from the reaching-back-in-time dept

Reader Dave submitted a story from the BBC on a push by the UK National Archives to ensure that older file formats can be read in the future, so that a “digital dark hole” isn’t created by incompatibility with modern machines. While it’s something of a puff piece hyping up a Microsoft deal with the Archives to cooperate on solutions to run virtualized versions of its older software, it does raise a somewhat interesting issue: as the amount of our digital archives grow, both personally and collectively, file compatibility with modern software and hardware could become a growing problem. Of course, as is pointed out in the article, the use of proprietary, closed file formats — like those typically favored by the likes of Microsoft — doesn’t really help, but hopefully raised awareness of the problem can help spare both national archives and individual users the pain of losing some of their digital history to incompatibility.

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Comments on “Where's That Old 286 Machine When You Need It?”

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Jasmyn says:


A few years ago, I transferred the last of my 5 1.4 inch floppy disk data to 3.5s, knowing that was the last time in my life that I’d ever see a PC with a 5 1/4 floppy disk drive! I refuse to give up my 3.5 inch floppy disk drive format, even though that means buying external drives.

I can’t imagine trying to manage this kind of data retention on a large scale. We’re just a small business. Much of our 3-5 year old data is stored on Zip disks, and we keep an extra external drive just in case we ever need it.

Urza says:

Re: Screaming

Why do you need an external drive for 3.5 inch floppies? My year old computer still has a floppy drive on it. And last time I checked, at least with Dell, most BIOS flashes are still done by 3.5″ floppy. Plus boot disks. There are just far too many uses still for the floppy to get rid of it just yet. CDs are still a pain in the ass, and personally I just can’t bring myself to burn a few kilobytes onto a 700 meg disc. It’s just such a waste of storage space.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Screaming

Um, I’m all in favor of keeping floppy drives around, but sheesh, haven’t you ever heard of USB flash drives? You can buy a 2GB one for around $20 these days. It’s as easy to use as a floppy drive (if not easier) and holds way more than a CD. Welcome to the 21st century.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Screaming

Oh, one more note. Check again on that BIOS thing. Every single model of Dell PC for the last 4-5 or so years allows you to initiate a BIOS flash update from your hard drive within Windows. No floppies needed.

Also, people need external floppy drives because a good share of the “home user” PCs and even business PCs now come without floppy drives by default, and some are designed such that you can’t even install one after the fact because there’s no bay for it (this is why I build my own computers).

How about you sell that cave of yours and join us in the new millennium?

Geeb says:

Obligatory MS bash

This is a complete non-story.

They’re not talking about physical formats (punched cards? easy), just applications and data formats. Fine. If you’ve digitised and stored 4 petabytes of Word 6 files, you can probably afford to store .iso images of the Win95 and Office CDs and retrieve the data through a VM in the future. Problem solved.

This is actually vaguely newsworthy if you look at it another way, though – MS have hit upon a blindingly obvious idea, but instead of trying to patent it as usual, they’ve decided to exploit it for some publicity.

WarOtter says:

Bigger problem here than just file formats

Forget virtualization and old hardware etc, what about the fact that no good method has been developed for long term archives since microfiche. Microfiche is still the gold standard since it is reasonably durable and is human readable without a power source or machine (albeit tough and squinty). Discs and such are horrible ways to store information, with relatively high failure rates and cross-hardware/software incompatibility being a major problem. The only saving grace of electronic archiving is it’s rapid ability to be replicated, but without a power source and a machine that can read it, you’re hosed 8 ways from sunday. Maybe those hand crankable laptops for dems po’ peoples don’t look so bad after all.

Santa says:

Re: Bigger problem here than just file formats

Give us a break. Microfiche a gold standard? It’s plastic, and to preserve it requires climate controlled locations. Otherwise, it dries out and tears.

The optical storage medium is the best, unfortunately, the self-created CDs/DVDs don’t have longevity. The dyes that are burned on the disc have been shown to fade causing data loss.

One could argue that the best storage method is paper, if handled correctly. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have survived two plus centuries and are still readable.

Storage doesn’t need to be backward compatible forever. Administrators need to make the determination what needs to be saved and what doesn’t. Special documents require additional storage requirements and will always need to be updated if needed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Bigger problem here than just file formats

Are you trying to imply computers and their hardware don’t require climate control????

I have to agree with the guy above Microfiche is the best. It takes up more room, but to read it, all you need is a light and a big white wall. Optical storage would still require the correct hardware. As hardware advances, you’d have to continually upgrade and transfer, etc, etc, etc. As time progresses, this could take weeks, even months to do.

Microfiche is technologically independent. If you want to periodically have a scanned archive, machines exist that just read and scan them into computers VERY quickly.

Seriously, microfiche is the way to go for archives. Easily created, easily read.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Bigger problem here than just file for

First you said “As hardware advances, you’d have to continually upgrade and transfer, etc, etc, etc. As time progresses, this could take weeks, even months to do.”

Then you said “Microfiche is technologically independent. If you want to periodically have a scanned archive, machines exist that just read and scan them into computers VERY quickly.”

Now let me get straight, you expect us to believe that straight digital archiving is very slow but if you then insert some the extra steps of printing out to Microfiche and then scanning back in it suddenly becomes VERY quick? That’s just nuts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Bigger problem here than just file formats

That Constitution is in a much more controlled environment then what you complained about with microfiche…

Some storage DOES need to be backwards compatible forever. Sometimes its a matter of archiving history. You don’t just erase it. It’s a glimpse into our past as we continue to grow. Yea, it might not prove extremely useful 10 years from now, but a couple hundred years from now, I hope they can look back on news articles and what not with ease.

riotnrrd says:

Dark ages

The loss of historical data due to incompatible data representations and/or decay of the physical media is part of the plot of “The Glasshouse”, by Charles Stross. In teh book, the period from the late 20th century to the late 21st is known as the Dark Ages since very little data has survived from that period.

I know I have lost data over the years – my Zip drive stopped working, floppies got demagnetized, DDS tapes are a pain, etc. Mapped out over the whole culture, such a scenario is not implausible.

There are other projects looking at this problem, such as the Long Now people, but Microsoft PR could actually act as a force for good in this instance by raising the profile of the issue.

Mike says:

Preventing Innovation

If you feel that insecure, keep an old PC in tip top condition and store it in a fireproof closet. If we cannot move on technologically and move away from the same old thing, how will innovative new systems come about? Screw compatibility if the next great thing cannot ensure it. Maybe if we moved away from the Von Neumann bottleneck we could create something spectacular. Prevent a “digital dark hole” by putting a few systems in a damn time capsule, by the time you need to use one the data will be worthless anyways.

Using zip drives still? Floppy drives? It’s time to move on, flash drives are so cheap, more effective, and a helluva lot faster. And you don’t hear too many people asking, “is there anyway you can rescue any of my data off this thumb drive?” but it happens all the time with floppies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Preventing Innovation

I’m talking more long term. Even if you kept an old pc in ‘tip top’ condition, I think we’ve all had enough experience with old machines that you attempt to start up and they say “Um screw you, I’m going back to sleep”. But anyway, I’m not saying microfiche is a great way to store data, but it is really the only long term mass storage solution we have. I’d love to move on to something else.

demar says:

Best arciving format ever!

Get a hammer and chisel and carve it into a big rock. That way it will last forever.

Seriously, would it not be just as easy to take that old data out every few years and update it with the latest format? For example, if you have an old Word 97 document, could you not just open it in 2007 and resave it? I know it is probably a lot of work, but if the data is that important, wouldn’t it be worth it? I smell a new business coming on! Data Updaters Inc… “Let up update your old crap!”

Steve R. (profile) says:

Into the Public Domain

When a company no longer supports a product – be it software or hardware – that product should immediately fall into the public domain.

Additionally companies should release FINAL versions of software on a CD. The internet facilitates the issuance of patches to fix software flaws. However, once that product is discontinued the patches may be difficult, if not impossible, to find should the product have to be reinstalled.

PS: I am not against companies requiring a nominal payment, shipping and handling, for the FINAL CD. Microsoft, are you listening? WIndows98!

ehrichweiss says:

Got an 8-incher over here...

8-inch floppy drive that is. Actually have two of them and used to have an actual floppy disk to go with it but I think my kids found it. I only kept them because about 12 years ago some guy in Toronto had been doing some research on genetics and just when he made his breakthrough he discovered that the data he needed was locked away on 8-inch floppies and he didn’t have a drive to retrieve them with.

So yeah, this isn’t really new news at all but the fact is that we have to decide WHAT formats we are going to preserve because there’ll be some bureaucrat that will use a freeware program from 1991 to record his data and then the hard drive he had the program on will crash and it’ll be discovered that he can’t find the program any longer, and this will drive the cost of the gubment up by another 55 trillion dollars.

DOODOO says:

oh yeah......here it comes!

Do any of you guy’s remember the First Star Trek Movie when Scotty tried to use the Computer in the Plexiglass guys office? one day they wont even know how to start the thing up, much less use it for anything but a museum piece.
we just need to take a lesson from nature in this regard., nothing lasts forever and sooner or later everything we create will go away. Data loss in inevitable, we live and we die, whatever we learned is forever lost, as it should be.

Gob Smacker says:

Re: oh yeah......here it comes!

Data loss in inevitable, we live and we die, whatever we learned is forever lost, as it should be…………

Uh, no, whatever we learned is passed on from one generation to the next by one means or another. Whether it’s oral, chiseled, painted, written, typed, bound, pressed, digitized or otherwise archived…. the information survives and is passed on.

If what we learn is forever lost when we die, none of us would ever learn anything beyond what we experience first-hand. We’d all still be living in caves, because the guy that figured out how to build a house died, and the information on how to build houses is now gone forever.

Robert (user link) says:

Formats for Luddites

A few weeks ago I found a copy of a book my great grandfather wrote in 1910. The only “technology” I needed was my reading glasses and a comfortable chair. I somehow doubt that 100 years from now my great grandson will be able to read a CD of my Microsoft Word files. I’m no Luddite, but there’s a lot to be said for old fashion human readable formats like paper and film.

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