Remember Plextor? Now they’re making SSDs.

Those of you who’ve been around as long as I have–which is probably most of you–will remember Plextor as the maker of the very best SCSI CD-ROM drives back when there was a market for SCSI CD-ROM drives. I had one, and I haven’t used it in years, but I relied on it, especially when I was doing A/V work. And it never, ever let me down. Read more

I hope this new recordable DVD format catches on

In October, LG and its startup partner Millenniata plan to release a new type of DVD, which they claim will last forever. The Navy doesn’t come right out and say it lasts forever, but it does say in its tests that these discs, called M-Discs, do last considerably longer than the traditional DVD-R and DVD+R discs on the market today.

I hope this catches on, but it’s possible it won’t. Why? Cost.

Read more

Thoughts on backups

Backups have weighed heavily on my mind lately. When you have 125 servers to tend to at work, chances are one of them is going to fail eventually. Really what seems to happen is they fail in bunches.

One of my clients has a problem. He’s out of capacity. And that’s gotten me thinking about backups in general.You see, my client’s golf buddies are telling him nobody backs up to tape anymore. Backing up to disk is the hot thing now. Here’s the theory. Your network is fast, right? Why make it wait on the tape drive? Back up all your servers to disk instead, and they can all back up at once, and hours-long backups take minutes instead, and restores take seconds. And no more paying $3,000 for tape drives and $6,000 for a rotation of tapes for it!

Now here’s the problem. A CIO hears "disk" and he thinks of that 400-gigabyte IDE drive he saw in the Sunday paper sales ad for $129 with a $60 mail-in rebate. (It wasn’t really quite that big, and it wasn’t really quite that cheap, but these things are always better on Monday morning than they were the day before.)

No enterprise bases something as important as backups on a single consumer-grade IDE disk. For one thing, it won’t be fast enough. For another, they’re not designed to be used that heavily, that frequently. An enterprise could get away with something like HP’s $1200 entry-level NAS boxes, which use cheap IDE drives but in a RAID configuration, so that when one of those cheap disks fails, it can limp along for the rest of the night until you swap out the failed drive. The chances of one drive failing are small but too large for comfort; the chances of two drives failing at once are only slightly better than Ronald Reagan winning the Republican primary this year. With Abraham Lincoln as his running mate.

One can set up some very nice backups on a Gigabit Ethernet setup. Since Gigabit’s theoretical bandwidth is about 3 time that of Ultra320 SCSI’s theoretical bandwidth, you can back up three servers at once at full speed. Drop in a second NIC, and you can back up six. In reality, the disks in the NAS box can’t come close to keeping up with that rate, but the disk can still back up everything much faster than tape will. Even a lightning-fast state of the art 200/400 GB LTO drive.

Frankly, with such a setup it becomes practical to back up your most important servers over the lunch hour, to avoid losing half a day’s work.

But you don’t get it for $129.

And in reality, no enterprise in its right mind is throwing out tapes either. If they back up to disk, they spool that backup to tapes the next day, so they can store the tapes offsite for archival and/or disaster recovery purposes.

How important is this? I remember about a year ago getting a request for a file that was changed in the middle of a week, and the person wanted that copy from the middle of the week, not from our Friday backups that are archived longer. Even with a tape rotation of 40 tapes, I couldn’t get the file. The tape had been overwritten in the rotation a day or two before.

While rare, these instances can happen. A 40-tape rotation might not be enough to avoid it. Let alone just a couple hundred gigs of disk space.

But what about home?

Consumer tape drives had a terrible reputation, and based on my experience it was largely deserved. The drives had a terrible tendency to break down, and the failure rate of the tapes themselves was high too. The lack of comfort with enterprise-grade tape that I see in my day-to-day work may stem from this.

The last time I was in a consumer electronics store, I don’t think I saw any tape drives.

I suspect most people back their stuff up onto optical disks of some sort, be it CD-R or RW, or some form of writable DVD. The disks are cheap, drives that can read them are plentiful, and if floppies are any indication, the formats ought to still be readable in 20 years. My main concern is that the discs themselves may not be. Cheap optical discs tend to deterriorate rapidly. Even name-brand discs sometimes do. We’ve had great luck with TDK discs ever since Kodak took theirs off the market, but all we can say is that over the course of three years, we haven’t had one fail.

The last time my church’s IT guy called asking about backups, we happened upon a solution: a rotation of USB hard drives. Plug it in, back it up, and take the drive home with you. It’s cheap and elegant. Worried about the reliability of the drives? That’s why you use several. Three’s the minimum; five drives would be better. Use a different drive every day.

It’ll work, and it’s pretty affordable. And since the drives can be opened up and replaced with internal drives, it has the potential for cheap future upgrades.

How about the reliability of hard drives? Well, I have a box full of perfectly readable 120-meg drives in my basement. They date from 1991-1993, for the most part. I bought them off eBay in the mid 1990s, intending to put them in computers I would donate to churches. The computers never materialized, so the drives sat. I fire one up every once in a while out of curiosity. The copies of DOS, Windows 3.1, and the DOS Netware client that were on them when I got them are still there.

Some technology writers have observed that modern IDE hard drives seem to have a use-by date; they just seem to have a tendency to drop dead if they sit unused for too long. I see this tendency in a lot of devices that use inexpensive electric motors. Starting them up every once in a while and giving them a workout to keep the lubricants flowing and keep them from turning glue-like seems to be the best way to keep them working.

At this stage, I’m less worried about the long-term viability of hard drives than I am about optical discs. Ask me again in 20 years which one was the better choice, and I’ll be able to answer the question a lot better.

If you’re stuck using optical discs, the best advice I can give is to use a brand of media with a good reputation, such as TDK, make multiple copies, and store them in a cool, dark, dry place. The multiple copies should preferably be stored in different cool, dark, dry places. Light seems to break down optical discs, and cooler temperatures as a general rule slow down chemical reactions. Dryness prevents chemical reactions with water and whatever the water might manage to pick up.

Reports on the death of film are [you know the rest]

Giddy Slashdotters are proclaiming the death of film since Kodak has announced it’s not going to sell film cameras anymore, at least not in the United States and Europe.
It proves to me that whoever wrote that story summary knows little or nothing about serious photography.

For many years, Kodak was a big name in serious photography. But come the 1960s, you started seeing serious cameras from a lot of other manufacturers. For the duration of my lifetime, Kodak cameras were pretty much relegated to the casual point-and-shoot arena.

But meanwhile, Kodak remained one of the largest producers of film. It remains so today. Go into any store and look for film, and the two brands you’re most likely to find are Kodak and Fuji.

Serious photographers have only recently begun to prefer digital. Some serious photographers still prefer the look of film. Pictures shot on film have a different look from digital shots, and they probably always will. Neither type of camera’s view on reality is necessarily more correct, but they’re certainly different, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly.

Casual photographers like digital point-and-shoots because they can take hundreds of pictures and only print out (and thus only pay for) the good ones. And there’s the perception among certain laypeople that digital is always better. CDs sound better than cassettes, so digital pictures will look better than film, right? That’s what the girl I was dating a year ago thought, and I never convinced her otherwise.

The money is in disposable cameras, film, and digitals. There’s just not much money to be made in the traditional point-and-shoots–too many companies are making them, and the margins are too thin. So Kodak is concentrating on the areas where it can make money. And Kodak can make a lot of money selling $150 digital cameras to people year over year (people will want to upgrade so they can make bigger prints, after all), or disposable cameras to people who forget to pack a camera, or film to people buying razor-thin-margin cameras made by someone else.

Once you can buy a $40 digital camera with resolution comparable to film, you’ll be able to declare film dead. But you can’t do that yet, and you won’t be able to for a few more years.

But I’m sure you already knew all of this, so I’m not sure why I’m writing this. But I feel better now.

Preserving those new (and old) holiday memories

Sorry, I never got around to those promised posts because, well, I’ve become a genealogy addict. But don’t you worry, this post is relevant even to people who are sick of reading about genealogy.
Mom and I were going through some old photo albums, and some of the photographs were in pretty bad shape. For all the talk about concerns over how long inkjet prints of digital pictures might last, some of Mom’s 30-year-old prints are, well, fading fast. Meanwhile, Mom has some prints that were taken 30 years ago that look like they could have been processed yesterday, except for the clothes the people were wearing.

I remember almost 15 years ago, when a neighbor’s house burned, going through their rescued photo albums, opening up the drenched pages, taking out whatever photos would come out in one piece, and putting them on towels scattered about the house to dry. I noticed that Polaroids are very difficult to get remove intact from sticky album pages, even under ideal conditions. Well, now I wonder if anyone pays attention to the acid content in those album pages and what else might contribute to pictures deterriorating.

But I’m not going to spend too much time thinking about that (why not leave that to the infamous self-proclaimed aristocrat and scientist?) because there’s an easy solution.

Scan those bad boys.

Most people have mountains of photographs, so it’ll take a while, but if you set out to scan a page a day, or a few pages a week on Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll eventually get through them. Burn them to a quality CD–I know among the name-brand discs you find in stores, the most consistent performer you’ll find is Kodak. If you buy in bulk, your best bet is either Mitsui or Taiyo Yuden, which are the two brands that CD duplicators most frequently use. The estimated lifespan under reasonable conditions for a high-quality CD-R is around 100 years. Some of my cheap house-brand CD-Rs haven’t lasted two years. So buy good stuff, and store the discs at room temperature. Don’t put them in the attic unless they’re full of pictures of former significant others whom you wish you’d never met. Remember the basic scientific principle that raising the temperature 10 degrees doubles the speed of a chemical reaction, so in theory, raising the temperature 10 degrees halves life expectancy. Storing your CD-Rs in a closed box in the basement, assuming it’s not terribly humid down there (40% relative humidity is optimal, according to Kodak), would be a good idea.

Actually, that same principle would be just as true for your prints as well.

Anyway, what do you do when the prints have already started to fade? Scan them anyway. Sometimes the scan ends up looking better than the original. If not, then try turning them into B&W pictures. Use your imaging software to convert it to greyscale, then play with the brightness and contrast. You’ll lose the color, but you might very well save the print. In the case of some of the old pictures of me, it’ll be harder to tell that I had blonde hair when I was really young, but it’ll at least be possible to tell what I looked like.

If you don’t have a scanner or you’re dissatisfied with the speed or quality of your existing scanner, I can recommend Canon’s LiDE series. They’re inexpensive and offer a very nice combination of speed and image quality. Most of them get their power from the USB port, which saves you a power outlet. And they’re small and light enough that they can fit into a laptop bag, making it possible to take a scanner and laptop along with you when you visit family and scan some old photos.

Getting those photos into digital form gives you other advantages as well. Some imaging software allows you to add captions or descriptions to the photos. If you’re Linux-savvy, you can set up a nice family website using one of the 12 bazillion gallery programs out there. You can keep it on your local LAN if you don’t want that stuff on the public Internet–you and your family can still enjoy punching through pictures on a strategically placed computer the same way you flip through old photo albums. If you’ve got a nice color printer, you can make as many reprints as you want, and if they fade, you can always just print them again. And while you’re burning CDs, you can burn an extra copy or two and keep them in someone else’s basement. If disaster strikes, insurance can replace most material items, but not the one-of-a-kinds like your photographs. Fortunately it’s easy to ensure they’re no longer one-of-a-kinds.

I’m in debt

It’s official. I’m a debtholder.
And a homeowner.

And after the brouhaha around my downpayment, I understand why my mom’s whole side of the family hates banks. It’s my money! Not yours! Gimme!

So here’s what I learned:

1. Banks don’t talk to each other. That’s fraternizing with the enemy.

2. In this age of computer automation, it can–and will–still take days for a check to clear. Give your brain-dead financial institution a week to sort it out. Don’t count on them getting into the 20th century before your closing date. (Yes, I am aware that it’s now the 21st century.)

3. Try to keep your money in the same institution as your family members, just in case they need to quickly loan you what you put in limbo by writing a check (ha ha!). You know that computer system it refuses to use to quickly transfer money to and from other banks? It will use it to at least check account balances and verify that the money you say is there really is there.

4. Keep as little of your money as possible in banks. My stockbroker/money manager/whatever-you-want-to-call-him gets money to me faster than my banks do. And he beats the tar out of the interest rates a bank pays.

5. You say it’s your money? Possession’s 9/10 of the law, pal.

But anyway, that’s over. I signed my name a few dozen times and around 8 pm I got a key. I drove over. I had a few things with me.

My mom wanted to know what the first thing I’d bring in was. Well, I figure you’ve got two hands. So, since I’m the greatest writer who ever lived, I brought a bronzed copy of my book, Optimizing Windows, and the Nov. 1991 issue of Compute, which contained the first published article I got paid for.

Actually, several of my friends are under orders to shoot to kill if I ever do anything like that. And, for the record, the greatest writer who ever lived was F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So what’d I really bring in?

In one hand I brought in a pewter cross I received on March 18, 1999, the day my membership became official at my current church. (But its main significance is it’s the only wall-hanging cross I have.) I hung it above the fireplace. In the other hand, I brought a framed copy of my dad’s senior picture. I set that on the mantle.

Then I brought in some old stuff. I brought in the sign that hung outside my grandfather’s office (“Dr. Ralph C. Farquhar Jr., Osteopath”), and I brought in a box. The contents of the box:

An apothecary that had belonged to my grandfather
A medical instrument that had belonged to my grandfather (whatever that thing’s called that he uses to look in your ears)
My great-grandfather’s microscope
Dad’s camera (a Minolta) and a couple of Kodak lenses
Dad’s wallet
A can of Farquhar’s Texas-Style BBQ Seasoning

I arranged those on the mantle as well. They look good there.

Unfortunately, since my dad was a radiologist, it’s hard to find anything that symbolizes what he did for a living. But soon I’ll be getting the OMT table that had belonged to Dr. Ralph and then to my dad. OMT is an osteopathic practice similar to what chiropractors do. Dad used to give OMT treatments to his friends after work in our basement. So the OMT table is going in the basement. Then, this house will be home.

Selecting a mass storage medium

Thursday, 5/4/00
CD-RW vs. Zip vs. Superdisk. Mail from India.

I am writing from New Delhi, India.

I read your comments on the site concerning ‘super floppies’. I would be very grateful if you could help me in this matter.

I have been thinking for some time about whether to buy a CDR drive or a ZIP drive. Recently my computer was hit by the CIH virus. Some of my data was lost.

I am a graphic designer as well. Consequently I need to transfer heavy files of an average of 10-15 MB to the printers or to show to my clients. I have been using file splitting softwares of late — but now I feel the need of alternative means of carrying the data for them.

Also some people say that CDRW cannot be read by some CD ROMs. I primarily need the drives for data back-up and transferring 10-15 MB files b/w printers, clients and my office.

Should I be buying an HP CDR or an Iomega 250 MB zip drive ?

I would be extremely helpful, if you could help me in my decision.

Thanking you,

Anshuman Bhargava.

First off, I’m sorry to hear about CIH getting you. We really need to find other ways to amuse 15-year-olds.

You are correct that some CD-ROM drives won’t read CD-RW discs. It’s a sure bet that any drive more than about three years old (pre-1997) won’t. Drives made since 1997 are supposed to be able to read them, but that doesn’t always happen. But with CD-R discs selling for peanuts, at least in the United States, that’s not too much of a concern. I’m usually willing to spend 75 cents on a CD-R I only use once. (I try to think of it as wasting 75 cents, rather than wasting 600 megs when I use a CD-R to transport a 20-meg file. Somehow that seems less wasteful.)

I had a conversation at work about Zips vs. Superdisk vs. CD-R/CD-RW the other day. I have a Zip drive, and I use it exclusively for installing Windows on computers I can’t easily connect a CD-ROM drive to. That’s it. I don’t trust it with any data I value. I’ve just seen too many of them fail. I know graphic designers swear by Zips when they aren’t swearing at them, but I’ve seen too many disks and drives fail. The Superdisk looks good, and Imation is on more solid financial ground than Iomega so I’m much more confident that Imation will be around in 5 years than I am about Iomega, but the LS-120 superdisk is much less common, and its capacity is lower.

If I were in your position, I’d get a CD-RW drive (I like Yamaha and Plextor, though I’ve also used HP, Sony and Philips drives) along with a spindle of CD-Rs and CD-RWs. Once you have a good idea which of your clients can handle CD-RWs and which ones have to use CD-Rs, you’ll be in good shape.

From an archival standpoint, CD-Rs make me a lot less nervous than either Zip or LS-120, because they’re optical rather than magnetic. I have plenty of 15-year-old floppy disks still floating around, but I’m not very confident many of them are still readable. Longevity varies greatly depending on the quality of the media, but you should be able to expect a couple of decades at least from quality CD-R (Kodak, Taiyo Yuden, and Mitsui discs are the safest; Kodak is the easiest of the three to find), plus they’re cheap, plus they can’t be damaged by viruses or user error. I periodically burn everything that matters to me to CD.

I hope this helps.

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