The bell tolls for your magnetic media

The bell tolls for your magnetic media

Summary: Don't wait to try to retrieve the data and content from your magnetic media. Chances are, some of it may already be unrecoverable and highly degraded.

TOPICS: Storage


Don't wait to try to retrieve the data and content from your magnetic media. Chances are, some of it may already be unrecoverable and highly degraded. Act now.

This weekend, I put out a 411 to my circle of Internet colleagues for anyone who still possessed original licensed copies of 1990-era Windows applications and Operating Systems -- the reasons for which will be apparent to you over the next few weeks. As it turned out, some friends of mine still had some of these dinosaurs lying around, collecting dust on their shelves and pushed into the recesses of their filing cabinets.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

One colleague of mine and fellow Linux freak/embedded systems developer Russ Nelson managed to dig up a near-pristine copy WordPerfect for Windows 6.0 -- still in it's box, with the original license key. It had been sitting in his desk for eons, all twelve 3.5" floppies in all. Russ is something of a pack rat, so he even had a number of older PC systems that were capable of reading the media -- he simply booted up with a trusty Linux boot CD, and did a "dd if=/dev/fd0 of=file.img" for each floppy disk, which dumped it to image files that I could download and use on a Virtual Machine.

We knew we were in trouble when we hit the Install 1 disk, which started to grind with a number of errors. Oh oh. We tried it on a second, a third, and then a fourth floppy-capable system, until we were able to get a successful dump. This process continued a number of times for four other floppies until we were able to dump all twelve images successfully. Total time investment? Over two hours.

Also Read: Long-Term Personal Data Storage (Robin Harris)

If you've got any kind of magnetic media, and you give a crap about anything that's stored on them, I urge you to transition them off to a more stable digital storage medium immediately. We're now at the cusp of which virtually any data from the 1990's stored on floppy might be unusable, depending on the conditions in which they were kept. If you've got 5.25 inch floppies, you might even be completely out of luck, since it's becoming increasingly difficult to find systems that can read them or haven't lost their drive calibration to the point where doing a file dump is next to impossible. Many of the newer systems aren't even capable of being cabled to a new floppy drive, but you can still buy USB-based units.

Magnetic storage degradation isn't unique to floppy disks, either. With the HDTV transition, many people will have a renewed interest in being able to view their existing VHS libraries on the newer sets. While a number of low-cost solutions for viewing the material on the newer sets are available,  there is still the issue of ongoing media degradation.

After about 15-20 years, VHS tapes will dramatically start to lose quality whether you watch them or not. So for those of you with wedding and home videos from the 1990's, if you haven't had them converted over to DVDs yet, you might want to think about doing so soon. If you had wedding videos done in the last 10 years and the videographer is still in business, you might even want to consider finding out if he still has the original Betacam masters and can convert it for you.

A number of companies will do a professional job on your VHS tapes with commercial equipment, particularly if you have certain videos that have special value to you, or need to have them digitally remastered. These companies will charge anywhere between $10 and $25 per tape if the source media is still relatively good. If you have a lot of videos, you might want to look into black box devices such as the ADS DVD Xpress DX2, which for about $80 will allow you to transfer directly from your VCR to your computer and burn DVDs.

Do you still have a lot of floppies and VHS tapes but need to transfer them over to newer storage and playback formats? Talk Back and let me know.

Topic: Storage


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • What are you going to replace your magnetic media with?

    While I agree that it's good to take old data and put it on fresh magnetic media, users should not fool themselves into thinking that there's something better than magnetic media, and that is even more true with media like Mini-DV. You can't ever use a servo magnet to erase them.

    If you think magnetic is bad, try optical. Writable optical media is at least 10 times worst than magnetic hard disk drives (HDDs). Don't believe me? Just as the Library of Congress what they're using for long-time archival media? It's HDDs.

    btw, I worked as a head-media enigneer at a hard disk company for over 10 years, and digital magnetic recording was my Master's Degree area of specialty.
    • Replacement media

      Paul, would you be kind enough to add more
      technical detail and more specific suggestions. This
      is a big problem for many.

      Thank you for your contribution.
      • Google/Wiki ?CD/DVD Rot? (nt)

        Joel R
      • I second that.

        I have been dealing with this problem as well. What do you move too? I have many large files (video and audio) that I would like to leave uncompressed. At this point I don't trust any media type at all (everything fails). Other than multiple copies, how can you at least hedge your bet in an economical way?
        • recommended long term archive solutions

          A comment was made about what I recommend. I personally archive to multiple hard disk drives and be sure to spin them up every month or so. Don't be afraid to use multiple drives, and be sure to store them away from the PC. That way, a thief, virus, or lightening bolt won't ruin your day.

          When I archive video content, I make an ISO 9660 image of the DVD, and then run QuickPar on the ISO image to create redundancy. That way, I can at lease be sure the ISO image is intact, and have some correction capability. However, even this solution has its limitations.

          Flash memory isn't a great long-term solution, either. Fundamentally, the data is stored by keeping a memory cell at a programmed voltage. Multi-level flash has reduced the amount of margin this voltage can vary, and the error-correcting codes aren't as strong as HDDs (unless some huge changes have been made since I've worked with flash.) However, flash is wonderful for extreme environments.
          • Unreadable CDs

            I've not had any problems reading any of the old floppies I have lying around. Just for grins I checked out my Legit copy of Microsoft Office I have on floppy that I got back in 1995. No problems. However I cannot read my Microsoft C compiler on CD (Factory printed) and many of my old data backups on the first burnable CD I haves are not readable. Frankly magnetic media is much more stable than optical, so I don't know why people would expect to retain ANYTHING stored on an Optical drive DVD or CD over 20 years. The government is still able to read their old magnetic media and they store stuff to Hard Drives. Hardrive backup is the only way to go.
          • MS Office 4.3 PRO

            about 14 years back, a company I was working at was using M$ Office 4.3 PRO, and had to reinstall to a larger HDD - only to discover several of the Genuine M$ floppy disks had failed [even back then]... I fortunately had the CDRom version [an OEM I got with a PC in 1993] - which actually included ALL the identical floppy disk images on the CD as well - so I was able to copy the relevant data to a few new disks, carefully peel the lables off the old disks and viola ... that problem solved.
            [ ... one thing I did learn - M$ was that damn cheap, they had used RECYCLED disks to make their genuine products, when removing the disk lables I discovered several other (non-M$) competitor company branded lables underneath the M$ factory lables !!! (what was this - built-in designer obsolescence ?!?) ]
  • I just wish they had persevered with 120MB/240MB Magneto-Optical drives. :(

    They were faster than floppy disks and much more robust against age deterioration.

    I still have a couple of drives somewhere about, but can't get the media.
    • Magneto-Opticals

      Are nice. It solved a lot of issues at the time.

      This is another reason why I like SSDs -- high potential MTBF, no chance of mechanical failure. The interface electronics could fault, like they would on a floppy drive or any other hard disk, but that's about it.
      • Yes, that's happened a lot as cheap mechanisms became the norm.

        Also bare electronics that are susceptible to static, is asking for trouble when trying to mount the drive(s).

        As for SSDs. They're definitely desirable, however USB Flash drives are more cost effective at the moment.

        You weren't referring to USB Flash as SSD, were you?
        • No, not USB flash

          I mean real SSDs.
          • I'll look into getting an SSD when replacing my notebook. (nt)

          • Flash has a finite lifetime as well....

            Current leakage will sap Flash in about the same amount of time.

            About the only means that you could REALLY save your data over the long haul would be to use electrically fused PROM and set the "no Write bit"

            And no, not EPROM as it is susceptible to UV.
          • RE: Flash writes

            AFAIK Algorithms are used to average out the writes to avoid memory region hotspots.

            Perhaps a usage-counter could be added to devices, so as to alert users to the level of confidence. Akin to battery levels.
  • RE: Use SSD for storage only

    SSD's can only be written to a limited number of times and at this stage should not be considered as the drive running the O/S - especially Windows which uses paging for virtual memory. SSD would appear to be ideal for a secondary HDD but not as your primary notebook or any other PC hard drive.
    • XP Embedded uses the Enhanced Write Filter to redirect writes

      or at least give the illusion of a normal write operation. Pagefiles and system logs are heavy consumers on desktop PCs, so using SSDs is foolish.
  • RE: The bell tolls for your magnetic media

    Okay, how about paper tape? I've still got my data for my PhD dissertation from the 70's on paper tape, although I don't plan to ever "read" it again. ;)

    This will always be the problem - the faster you need to write something (because it's big), the easier the medium needs to be to write on. The easier the medium is to write on, the easier it will be for unintended "writing" by external events or simply entropy. Even the most ancient stone writings (very little data, very hard to write on) will eventually be erased by erosion and/or melting.
  • Why???

    It would have been great if you'd have explained exactly why this degradation occurs.

    I found that on some audio tapes that I tried playing the sound was pretty bad, but if I rewound them a couple of times it got better. Not sure why.

    Can you explain in simple terms the reason this magnetic degradation occurs?

    • re: Why??

      The usual two reasons for the deterioration of magnetic tape-based media are:
      (a) tape stretch (due to the "winding forces" on the reel). Also "edge ripple" due to the same effect. Running the tapes back and forth between another reel can "relax" some of this, which may explain your experience with your audio tapes.
      (b) "binder failure"... the glue holding the oxide to the mylar support layer dies. Chunks of oxide fall off
      (this also contaminates the heads, which makes them scratch the -next- tape/disk you attempt to mount)
      ((head decontamination, or "brushing off" the flakey oxide may -also- have improved your audio tapes))

      Heat/cold cycles and excessive humidity can both accellerate binder failure.

      Older (pre-double and quad- density) disks and tapes also have lower "coercivity" formulations of oxide (and using "analog" tapes instead of "digital" tapes can do this, too) so that the magnetic domains might "relax" to less rigidly-defined areas of "north" and "south".
      • High humidity can cause the binding to leach

        In the 70s or 80s, I can't recall exactly when.
        The recording industry had to resort to baking tapes to enable them to rescue the recorded material. The tapes would become sticky and siezed up in the machine. Video tape was not immune either.