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Read This If You Can

Mention meteorology and many of us think of “TV Weather Barbie” pointing to an animated map showing numbers, arrows, and colorful shapes while speed-talking about why it might rain.  In spite of this unfortunate cliché, women (and men) who are true meteorologists are highly trained scientists with sophisticated tools.  You and I might plan our day based on the number of clouds overhead, but a meteorologist knows that there are over 100 different types, grouped into 10 categories based on shape and altitude, each of which tells a unique weather story.

While meteorologists may be exceptional in their knowledge of all the different types of clouds, the entire scientific community has one thing about clouds in common – data storage.  This very different type of cloud got its name from the cartoon cloud symbol used by network engineers when sketching out connections – it represents the fuzzy area on the Internet that is mostly out of their control (much like the weather).

What exactly does that all-important data look like?  A single character of text is represented by a byte, so in simplistic terms the word “cloud” would require 5 bytes of storage.  In 2024, we will create about 300,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data (~ 1/3 of a zettabyte in data-speak) each and every day.  It was much less in 1968 when I began my freshman year of college, and I didn’t give it a thought – that is until I met the IBM 1800.

As a Mechanical Engineering student, I had access to the department’s computer.  It was situated in a small room with a row of 6-ft high cabinets arranged side by side in the middle.  Along with a bunch of electrical stuff, some of these also contained so-called “core” memory, an array of tiny donut-shaped magnets that could each be switched electronically to represent either a one or a zero.  A single byte is composed of eight bits, so our word “cloud” would consume 40 little magnetic donuts.  You can already sense the problem.

Connected to the cabinets was a teletype machine, where you could communicate with the 1800 by typing in queries and waiting for the machine to type back it’s reply.  You could also issue instructions via punch cards, and my backpack always had a stack of these, secured with a rubber band, ready to feed the machine.

Larger volumes of data that the machine needed to preserve were stored on 14” diameter aluminum disks, holding around 7 megabytes each.  The 1800 backed up its data nightly on large reels of magnetic tape.  None of this was even remotely practical for an individual user to maintain custody of his/her precious data. For some foolish reason, I trusted that nothing important would ever be lost.

When the personal computer arrived on the scene in the Seventies, personal portable data storage became a thing.  Floppy disks were dominant, with sizes evolving from 8” through 5 ¼” to 3.5” by the early Eighties.  By 1996, over 5 billion 3.5” floppies were in use.  It’s physical image is still used as the icon for “Save” on most computers.

The 3.5” floppy’s long successful run was finally ended by the onset of software bloat – the process whereby successive versions of a computer program become slower, use more memory and disk space, and require more processing power.  One version of Microsoft Windows 98 required sequentially inserting 21 different floppy disks to install it on a hard drive, while Microsoft Office required almost twice as many.  Envisioning those stacks of floppy disks couldn’t help but remind me of those bundles of punch cards I once lugged around.

There are now other personal options, including portable hard disk drives, USB thumb drives, and CD-RW’s.  And in spite of all the changes and associated hardware compatibility issues, the 3.5” floppy refuses to die.  The longevity of a small plastic envelope that holds only ~ 1.5 megabytes is partly due to an unlikely phenomenon – Flop Rock.

A great mood-lifter on a cloudy day is Don’t Worry Be Happy, an upbeat earworm by Bobby McFerrin.  Encoded in MPEG-4 audio, it requires 10 megabytes of storage – the equivalent of eight 3.5” floppies.  No happy person would want to worry about switching disks 7 times just to listen to one song - unless of course that person is part of a semi-underground movement that revels in the challenges of limited storage and low bit rates to create a unique and collectible sound.

Floppy disk music may have peaked in the ought-tens, but it is still going strong today.  Some of the rarest and most collectible music around can be found on such sites as Floppy Kick and Discogs.  A group called Floppy Totaal holds an annual festival in Rotterdam and continues to support research into obsolete media as a cultural phenomenon.  The festival once featured music events based on punch cards – sadly mine were stored in a landfill in a long time ago.  There is at least one remaining seller of floppy disks, Tom Persky, who runs floppydisk.comWhile floppy music is intriguing, this storage technology will eventually fade away.

The spread of pocket-sized Cellular/WiFi radios has all but eliminated the need for portable storage.  No one will ever be certain how much data has been lost along the evolutionary path of storage technologies - even now, reading music files from a 3.5” floppy would pose some difficulty.  If you were to come across some precious family memories that were stored on an 8” floppy, your best chance of recovering said memories would be toss out the disk and interview Grandma instead.

The history of data storage encompasses many technologies and incompatible formats.  While those specializing in overhead clouds still need expertise in all types, those of us end-users dealing with data need only remember one.  The network cloud symbol looks very much like a cumulus cloud, those puffy cotton balls that sometimes float overhead.  Those that don’t get very tall are indicators of fair weather.  When they do gain height, they serve as a warning that thunderstorms may be coming.  The mysterious data cloud, like the weather, can be unpredictable.  Nevertheless, we are told not to worry about the details, but be happy that our data is somewhere.

For some foolish reason, I trust that nothing important will ever be lost.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life.  In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics.  Paul has over 50 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders.  His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.




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