In this post I’m going to talk about legacy storage and the pitfalls of not upgrading and moving your data to newer technology.
A Little History
This post comes from some of my own experience. My first commercial computer was the Macintosh. I’m talking about the 128k original Macintosh with a 400k single-sided floppy drive. The floppy was a 3.5 inch format, but the method of storage was different from the later drives. The first Mac drives used a variable speed rotation to store the same amount of information on the inner track as the outer track of the floppy disk. When the PC began to use the 3.5 inch floppy, the spindle speed was fixed and they floppy disk stored 360k per side. Later, the Fat Mac (512k memory) and then the Mac Plus (SCSI interface, memory slots up to 4 meg) upgrades were introduced. Somewhere in those upgrades I ended up with an 800k double-sided floppy drive. This is the drive that I currently have in my Mac Plus. I transitioned to a PC between 1991 and 1995. I finally went full-on PC in 1995 because of Windows 95, which allowed me to ween myself off of the superior graphical interface of the Mac IIsi (the Mac II was on loan to me from my brother who was overseas at the time).
Over the years of using my Mac (between 1984 and 1993ish) I built up a collection of floppies. I also had a 40meg external SCSI drive that I had files on. Over the past 4 years, I’ve been lamenting the fact that I did not copy all of my software off the Mac and onto a PC. The dilemma came when I realized that I had no method to get from the early 1990 technology to today’s technology. SCSI version 1 is obsolete and I couldn’t find a hard drive to work on the Macintosh. The floppies cannot be read by any floppy disk hardware today because of the variable speed technology used at that time. Also, floppies went obsolete right after the super disk came out (and died a quiet death due to the hope that CDs would become the new storage method). Now the preferred external storage device is the USB thumb drive. The old Mac doesn’t know what a thumb drive is! Network transfer? That version of the Macintosh was pre-Internet. When I connected to the Internet in the early 90s with that machine, I had a 1,200-baud modem (ah, the good ole’ days).
I’ve scoured the Internet in the past and came across sites that would convert disks for a fee, but I wanted to scan my disks and determine if they were salvageable. Also, my disks are more than 20 years old now and that means that many probably are not readable any more (I’m actually surprised at how many still worked). Late last year I came across this device: http://www.bigmessowires.com/floppy-emu/. This circuit is an emulator that attaches to the external floppy port on a Macintosh (it works on Apple II computers as well). It has a Micro SD card that you can write 20 megabyte external hard disk images that the Mac recognizes and will boot from. Then there is a program for the PC called the HFV Explorer: http://www.emaculation.com/doku.php/hfvexplorer that can mount the image files and navigate Macintosh files in a window. Then the ability to drag and convert data files can be done from this application.
So I promptly converted as many files as I could and discarded my old floppies (since they’re just collecting dust in my closet).
I have all my files copied onto images and saved them on my PC hard drive. These are backed up with my Internet backup tool so there’s no chance of losing anything. I have also converted some of the text based files onto my PC. I had a lot of pascal programs that I wrote and it’s nice to be able to look back and reference what I did back then.
One type of file that is frustrating to convert is the Mac Draw files. I have schematics that I drew on the Mac and saved in that format. I currently use Visio, but Mac Draw (or Claris Draw) is not convertible into anything current. I have a working version of Mac Draw and I can boot up my Mac Plus with the emulator and a 20 meg hard drive and open a Mac Draw file. Unfortunately, there is no format that it saves in that can be used on a PC. So I was forced to take some screenshots of schematics with my camera (oh yeah, that turned out great! No, not really) just so I don’t have to boot up the old Mac when I want to see the circuit.
How to Protect Your Files
As you’ve discovered from my story and if you’re old enough to have used many iterations of computer technology, there are two problems with computer storage. First, the technology itself becomes obsolete. Second the file formats become obsolete. I’ve scoured the Internet looking for the binary format of Mac Draw. This was a proprietary format so it’s not available. Also, the format went obsolete before the Internet really took off, so it wasn’t archived. I’m sure the format is saved someplace in Apples legacy files. There are some file converters that can convert from Mac Draw onto newer software, but it’s for a newer Macintosh and I’d like to convert to MS Visio. Maybe I’ll do my own hacking.
I’ve read articles where NASA has struggled with this issue in the past. They have converted their space probe data from mainframe hard disks to laser discs and I’m sure they are now using some sort of cloud storage. Fortunately mass storage is so cheap these days that if you can get your files there, then you have plenty of room to store it. The cloud storage has the added benefit of never going obsolete because the hard drives used are constantly upgraded by the provider (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc.). Looks like NASA has a web portal to dig up any data you would like: https://www.nasa.gov/open/data.html Very nice.
If you’re a programmer, like me, you’ll want to make sure you keep your files transferred to a newer storage. Converting from one technology to another can be a real challenge. If you convert between Unix, Mac or PC, you’ll need to figure out how to convert your files early on. If you can’t, then you might be able to get an emulator. For DOS programs, I use DOSBox. I can use the DOSBox emulator to play all my old DOS games (such as Doom, Heretic, Descent, etc.). There is a lot of interest in resurrecting retro arcade games and retro consoles. The Raspberry PI has hundreds of retro games that can be downloaded and played. So keep your games.
I don’t see any future where the USB hard drive will become obsolete, but I thought the same about the 3.5 inch floppy. So avoid keeping your files on external devices. Most people have enough hard drive storage these days that external device storage seems foolish. I currently only use SD cards, Flash cards or USB drives to transfer files to and from my hard disk. My most valuable files are the files that I create myself. Those are either backed up to the Internet or I check them into GitHub. Everything else is replaceable. Always think about what would happen if your computer were destroyed in a fire or natural disaster. What have you lost? Make sure you have some method to recover your files.
Another type of file that needs some thought is the photo. Photographs used to be stored in albums and shoe boxes (at least that’s where I put ’em!). A few years ago I scanned all my old 35mm photos and stored them on my computer. I had photos from the early 80’s when I was in the Navy. These photos were turning yellow and they were stored in shoe boxes where nobody could enjoy them. After I scanned them in, I converted some with Photoshop to correct the color and brightness. I forgot how good those photos used to look. More importantly, they are backed up on my Internet storage. I also borrowed my parents photo albums and scanned those photos. Here’s a picture of the Mackinac bridge from 1963 (I was less than a year old at the time):
Organizing Your Files
The final problem you’ll run into is how to find your files. This takes some organizational skills. I have all of my digital photos stored by date and title. When I come home from a hike and I copy files from my Cannon Rebel, I store the files in my photos directory (of course) in a new directory that starts with the year, month then date (so they sort right). Then I put a title so I can scan down and see what the photos represent. For example, my wife and I visited the Smithsonian annex in Virginia on August 8th of last year, so my directory is: “2016-08-13 Smithsonian Annex”. All of my raw photos go into that directory. If I crop a photo or fix the color, I give the photo a new name and I might even put it in another directory. The photo above is a reduced size photo. The original is over 2000 pixels by 2000. In the future I see the need for a database to track photos, but I haven’t figured out how to get the data organized in a fast and easy way. The ultimate database would have different key words that can be searched on, like the location of the photo, who is in the photo, the date of the photo, who took the photo, etc. Then I can search for all the photos of my wife and I when we were on vacation in July. Currently, I have to scan through all the thumbnails and look for our faces.
Over the years I’ve changed my methods of organizing files. Some of those files are still in the same directories that they were in when I first created them. I left them this way because I know where to find them. I remember an old professor in college with piles of papers in his office claiming that he has a “system”. He then proceeded to pull the exact paper out of the middle of what looked like a random pile. Yeah, that’s me. In fact I have a root sub-directory called “d_drive”. Back in the day, I owned a 1.9 Gig hard drive that I installed in my DOS machine. Unfortunately, DOS at the time had a limit to the size of a partition on a disk, so I had to create 3 or 4 partitions on this hard drive and one of the drive letters was D:. This is where I kept all my source files for games that I was working on. When I upgraded that machine to an 8 Gig hard drive, I just copied the partitions to sub-directories on the new drive. Of course, I just named the directories “d_drive”, “e_drive”, etc. That directory has not changed much since. That drive is currently on my new 4 terabyte drive. Too many sub-directories and files inside there to try and re-organize it now.
Organize your files before you acquire too many files! Eh, nobody does that. I didn’t recognize that I needed a system until it got out of control. Having files on floppies made things difficult as well. I had a filing system back then, but it was still a bit painful to find a file. Just be aware that you’ll fall into this trap eventually.
If you have files that you can’t read anymore because you don’t have the program that created them. Save them. Search the Internet for a solution. Someone out there probably has those files and have experienced the same problem. Maybe a device, program or emulator will come along and save your files. Storage space is cheap. There is no need to throw away files unless you really want to get rid of them. Try to keep your programs as well. Sometimes that’s not feasible due to licensing issues. Sometimes you’ll need to use an emulator (like DOSBox) to run your old programs. Make sure you keep your license numbers in digital format in a location you can find quickly. I have a directory containing files of everything that I have installed on my PC. I keep all my license information in this directory (which incidentally has sub-directories labelled as the name of the software installed). Steam has made it easier to keep track of Games that I have purchased. At least I can always get into my Steam account and re-install a game I previously purchased without digging around for the CD/DVD and the license number. Other programs such as Photoshop need the license number to activate.
I will also download the install file and save those. If I upgrade my computer hard drive and I need to re-install, the installation medium might not be available to download for the version that I have a license for. I’ve run into that problem before and it’s quite annoying to be forced to purchase a new version just because I can’t obtain the old installation material.
One last way I avoid obsolete material is that I have signed up for annual contracts on a couple of programs I’ve used over the years. Microsoft Office is one of them. I recently analyzed how many times I have upgraded (I used to upgrade every two or three years) and for the $99 a year price, I can get 5 copies of Office 365 and not deal with the process of purchase and upgrade. You’ll need to analyze the cost and usage to determine if it’s worth the price to go that route.
If you have unique ideas on how you keep ahead of the legacy battle, feel free to send me an email or leave a comment. I’ll be happy to share your information with anyone who stumbles onto this blog.