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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In praise of old tech

(Normally, this blog publishes non-political posts on the weekends. But we all need a break from this endless election, don't we? Besides, the big Donald Trump revelation turns out to be crap.)

Even if I had the money, I wouldn't buy the new ultra-thin iMac, cool as it looks. No, if I had the dough to upgrade, I'd put together the video editing system of my dreams -- and the whole thing probably wouldn't cost much more than a grand.

One thing's for sure: That dream system would have an optical drive, something the new iMac lacks. Alas, the designers of many new systems sneer at those old DVDs or CDs. Those shiny silver disks, once considered the Jungian archetype of high-tech hipness, are now viewed as close kin to 8-track tapes. They're ancient. Useless.

Or are they?

The DVD remains the best storage medium for a class of data that doesn't yet have an agreed-upon nomenclature. I call it "maybe-data" -- stuff you may or may not want to use at some point in the future. Even if you're 90% sure you'll never again want to see that maybe-data, that 10% of doubt keeps you from consigning the stuff to cyber-history. 

Being a Photoshop artist, most of my work files fall into the maybe-data category. A project may go through twenty or thirty iterations before reaching the final stage. That can add up to a whole bunch of gigs, just to reach a final 70mb PSD file. 

I don't want all of that stuff on my hard drives -- but at the same time, I feel queasy about tossing it all into the Recycle bin.

You probably have a lot of maybe-data clogging up your system right now. Raw video files from your camcorder. Back-up copies of your family photo album or your music. How about that rare old BBC documentary you downloaded from YouTube? You can't be sure that it'll stay on YouTube forever...

The cheapest, most reliable place to dump your maybe-data is the trusty old DVD. If you shop carefully, you can pick up a spindle of 50 DVDs for ten or twelve bucks. That comes to...what, maybe 225 gigabytes of storage. For ten or twelve bucks. You can't pick up a 200 gig hard drive for that kind of money.

True, a spindle of DVDs takes up a certain amount of physical space. But so what? You can put three of 'em in a shoebox and store that box under your bed. Problem solved. 

How long will your maybe-data last? If you don't mistreat the disks, quite a few years. 

I'm turning into a bit of a Luddite when it comes to computer tech: Much-ballyhooed improvements don't impress me as much as they impress others. 

Impoverished as I am, I own an iPad, given to me as partial payment for a project. It's a great deal of fun, and very useful when traveling. But it's not a real computer. It's a book-reading device and a games machine, with more-or-less functional internet capability. That's all very cool, but don't tell me that this thing is a computer

The new Microsoft Surface seems intriguing, but only in its pricey Pro variant. Windows RT doesn't seem like anything I'd want to wrestle with.

No, to me a real computer is a tower. A tower with big fans and proper airflow and at least 8 GB of Ram and four or five or more hard drives of various sizes. And two monitors. 

A real computer is something I put together myself.

And until someone comes up with a better way to store maybe-data, it'll have an internal optical drive. 
Nope: Ideal long-term storage is a 4-bay drive enclosure with accompanying hardware RAID interface, plus 4 2Tb drives. That's $550 for 6 Tb of fault tolerant, high-speed storage. Otherwise, trying to back up to 4.7 Gb DVDs is a non-starter.

First, 6 Tb = +/- 1,275 DVDs -- except that things never fit smoothly, so you're actually talking closer to 1,500 DVDs. Except that if you really *care* about any of that data, you're making *at least* two copies of every critical DVD, if your failure rates are anywhere close to mine.

So, now we're at 3,000 DVDs. At $0.20 a pop, you're already $50 over the price of my solution. And then comes the big savings: Amount of time required to prepare my data for storage: 0 seconds. Amount of time required to burn 3,000 DVDs: 10,000 hours, or 25 40-hour workweeks.

And that's even spotting you the time to create each DVD image to burn.

You don't need 6 Tb of storage? Fine: Go with a dual-drive system and a couple 2 Tb drives in RAID 1. That's a Tb of fault tolerant storage for, say, $200.

Boot them up every few months. Every year or two you might have a drive fail; swap it out with a same-sized replacement, let the controller munch on it a few hours while it replicates the missing disk, and you're back in business.

The only potential issue I've thought of so far is dependency on the interface card. (I have a beautiful collection of very high-end video and audio processing cards, the top of the line in their day, that set me back, oh, $8 to $10k altogether. Yep, you guessed it: They're all ISA. [Well, some might be EISA.]) Given that, you might be better off with a 2- or 4-bay NAS device supporting RAID 1, 5 or 6.

I promise you, well before you've finished your second 50-disk spindle, you'll be surfing TigerDirect, looking for a good deal on standalone RAID devices...
Maz, that sounds impressive -- until you think about shelling out $550 all at once for maybe-data. That's a lot of money to store stuff you probably will never use again but are keeping around just for peace of mind.

I don't think I would use 3000 DVDs over the course of a lifetime. Your solution is akin to buying 1000 cans of peas all at once because that way you can get the per-can cost down to thirty cents. Sure, you can DO that...if you really, really like peas...

I have roughly 70-120 gigs of maybe-data on my system right now. $10 worth of DVDs will take care of all of it, with room to back-up my music files. Yet again.

Yeah, burning the disks takes a little time. So you watch some Jon Stewart while you work. No biggie.

DVDs do fail. If your maybe-data has a 50% chance of being useful to you again, you'll want more than one copy.

All of that said, I would love to have as many TBs as possible on this system, now that I'm getting into video editing. But I'll NEVER buy Seagate again...

(Longtime readers know that I got hit by a notorious firmware fault.)
I recently went to use some CDs that I had data I had paid a professional to recover...their discs were no longer working--unreadable. I was pretty shocked because they had been stored fairly properly. Of course they were years old (maybe even ten, but still). Is there a life expectancy for CDs and DVDs-if so do DVDs live longer?
kc -- the life expectancy of CDs and DVDs is a contentious issue. But there are ways to resurrect the data. Some people swear that you can work wonders by applying a banana to the surface.

No, really:

And then there are devices that strip the topcoat off the CD and then apply a recoat. I think they cost around 30 bucks.

Bananas are cheaper, so start there.
Thanks- I had made dupes that seem to work - except one. I will give the banana a try.
Gonna use a little SS to buy a Falcon NW tower in the second quarter & it will certainly have two optical drives. Fooey on pads.
Well, you're not really talking about $550 for 'maybe data,' as the array can serve as your data drive, as well. In fact, assuming you never need that much storage, you've got your active data *and* your archive all in one place.

Here's a better bet for you, given your 150 Gb 'maybe data' needs: Assuming you're running a reasonably modern system (sez the telecom consultant working from a 2.6 GHz P4), you probably have a reasonably large SATA data drive, and your mobo probably supports RAID0 and RAID1. So buy a second drive to match your existing one, reconfigure your system for RAID1, give it an hour or two to mirror the existing drive, and you're done. A mobo RAID controller can handle RAID1 fine by itself, and with 2 Tb drives selling for under $100, drive mirroring doesn't seem nearly so painful anymore.

And, of course, you should never see RAID as a replacement for data back-up. Except, of course, I can't imagine it's any less dependable than a single DVD copy -- especially if that DVD is colocated with the PC.

I recently finished the storage unit restack from hell: I went from 7,000 cubic feet to about 3,200 cubic feet. In doing so I uncovered boxes and boxes of full-system back-ups... to 5.25" floppies, 3.5" diskettes, QIC-40 and QIC-80 cassettes, and DAT tapes. I found selective back-ups to magneto-optical drives, Zip and Jaz drives, CDs, and DVDs. *And* among the remains of the newspaper I once owned, I found a large box of Apple II back-ups -- on audio cassettes.
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