• Data Storage in the Year 4013

    It is the year 4013. The Bangladeshi Empire rules the world. Being used to annual inundation from the monsoons, the Bangladeshi people gradually moved west during the global warming crisis of the late 21st century until they inhabited the Himalayan Archipeligo and most of the world went submarine. The short ice age of the fourth millennium gradually sequestered much of the water and as the glaciers slowly recede, Bangladeshi future archaeologists (FAs) are starting to dig up the past of the legendary western civilizations. Contrary to the cynics it seems that helicopters, private cars and hover boards really did exist once. The real treasure is emerging from the archives. Vast libraries and data centres were hermetically sealed when the inevitability of “The Flood” was finally accepted.

    Millions of books have been preserved but very few were printed after people turned to tablets. Many e-readers have been found and some had documents in local storage including movies. The FAs have been able to reproduce “Dumb and Dumber” and “Twilight” but most of these devices kept their data on something called the interweb.

    CDs and DVDs are unreadable even after using information from books to recreate the players because the medium has yellowed, cracked and warped. However, microscopic scanning of the metallic layer on the substrate has been successful in recovering some data however painfully and slowly and only where this was gold.

    Huge libraries of magnetic tape have turned up. When new, this media had a guaranteed 15 year service life based on 15% loss of magnetic coercivity in that time. After 2,000 years there is almost no signal left but this is the least of its problems. The tape sticks together and when parted the data carrying oxide layer separates from the substrate. Some very old reels of tape have been found to store data at only 556/800/1600 bits per inch and although nobody remembers what an inch was, the data can be made visual by the use of very fine metal particles suspended in alcohol. Again, visibility comes to the rescue. Cartridges of very dense data on hundreds of serpentine or helical tracks are almost always unrecoverable using this method. It has been possible for the drive technology to be painstakingly reproduced at very high cost. Some data has been recovered this way.

    These data centres also contained farms of disk based storage systems but it is obvious how these high precision rotating devices look after all this time. They certainly don’t rotate any more. Also, the very light read/write heads have mostly become stuck to the surfaces or their landing areas and are immediately ripped off on any attempt to start a rotation. The magnetic coercivity of the surfaces have dropped to almost zero anyway. These are useless.

    The most successful media have proved to be solid state disks (SSD) and memories including portable devices such as Flash cards and USB sticks. Unfortunately the former were mainly used for temporary storage in high speed systems and the latter for transfer of files and photos. At least the photos are proving to be fun.

    The point I have been making is that for extremely long term data storage it is hard to see how we can rely on anything we can’t see even with the aid of microscopes etc. Have you seen the 50′s classic sci-fi movie “Forbidden Planet”. It is scarred into my brain as one of the films that gave me nightmares as a child but it did contain a terrific example. The technology of a long lost civilisation was recovered because they had micro-engraved their information onto crystals. Very cool. The movie also had Robby the robot who predated the robot from “Lost in Space” by years.

    Our current advice for long term archiving revolves around two principles:
    1. Redundancy.
    2. Technology refresh.
    I will look at these recommendations next time.

    Mike Sparkes is author of the blog Obscure Aussie and an IT storage expert based in Brisbane, Australia.

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