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Computing, Even in Linux, is All About Failure

Archiving, Disappearing Media, Raising Bees

  • January 29, 2010
  • By Carla Schroder
Or rather, it is all about preparing for inevitable failures, and they are legion. Hardware failures, power failures, and most of all, storage media failures. Ever notice how fragile digital storage media are? Are we ever going to get digital storage media that can match plain old paper, and other analog media, for reliability and longevity? Let's take the example of archiving photographs.

Archiving Photos

Way back in the primitive olden times, back before everyone owned multiple computers, and high-tech fancy digital cameras, managing your personal photos was easy. You took pictures with an inexpensive film camera, and paid a shop to process your film and make prints. Then you put your photos in albums or boxes, or somewheres, and there they sat, contented. Then sometime later, maybe years or decades later, you or your heirs would go through the albums and boxes and enjoy them. (And laugh at your clothing and hair styles.)

Now we have these fancy digital cameras that hold hundreds of pictures. How do you get them out of the camera? That part still eludes a lot of people. The ones who figure that part out are then faced with the problem of sharing them. There are commercial outfits that will put them on a CD and make prints. Facebook and Flickr have introduced computer-wary generations to the Internet and sharing pics online. It's easier than ever for the do-it-yourselfer to do sophisticated photo editing and publishing.

But what will happen to all those digital photo archives? How will future generations find and enjoy your photos? It's easier than ever to take photos, but harder than ever to preserve them. Web sites like Facebook and Flickr come and go. File formats and storage media change, how long will there be devices to read yours? How long will they even be readable? The best long-term archiving is still boxes of printed-on-paper photos.

What about movies? You can look at a film movie even without a movie projector. You can build a simple viewer using dowels to hold the reels, a hand-crank, and a magnifying glass. With videotape and digital media, no way, you need an electronic machine and you need electricity.

Nope not Print

We long ago passed the point where printed-on-paper backups were practical; when we're storing gigabytes and terabytes and more of data, paper just isn't going to do the job. Audio files, and digital images and movies were never good candidates for paper backups.

Backups of Backups

Building a computing infrastructure for even a small business is primarily piling on the redundancies. On-site backups, off-site backups, power, spare parts or spare computers for the inevitable hardware failures. What if the power goes off? What if someone steals everything? What if you encrypt everything, and then lose the password, or some defect renders it unrecoverable? How many redundant backups can you actually keep track of before you burn the lot and retire to a little farm to raise bees? What happens when you go to that Great Penguin Rookery in the Sky, will your survivors be able to access your records and other things they need?

The Linux Advantage

At least with Linux and FOSS we don't have the added hassle of license police and inflexible installation and recovery media. We don't have to phone home just to get the OK to reinstall software we already paid for. We can move operating systems and applications to different machines as we please. We can make all the backup copies we want and nobody cares. If we have to translate some weird old file format, we can figure out how to do that because it's open, and not locked away in some nasty undocumented binary format.

While that does not quite bring us to archiving nirvana, it is one considerable set of hassles removed, and until digital storage media catch up to paper, it helps.

Carla Schroder is the author of the Linux Cookbook and the Linux Networking Cookbook (O'Reilly Media), the upcoming "Book of Audacity" (NoStarch Press), a lifelong book lover, and the managing editor of LinuxPlanet and Linux Today.

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