Archives for posts with tag: Archive

Fire in the hole

How do you put out an electrical fire? I can imagine you struggling to remember which extinguisher has the black label and whether you want powder or foam or just a fire blanket. Well, in my illustrious and long career I have seen the evolution of fire-fighting in the glass house, the big computer rooms, and the stories have been hilarious. I stress here that I have never actually experienced a fire in a computer room but the near misses and false alarms make, I hope, interesting reading.

In the beginning there was CO2. (Carbon dioxide) This gas is inert and is heavier than air so it can settle on a fire, displace the oxygen and starve it to death. Unfortunately is is also deadly to humans. It can asphyxiate you at concentrations as low as 7% whereas fire flooding systems use up to 30%. A fire alarm in a CO2 protected glasshouse meant quick evacuation. I was present in the computer centre of my old alma mater when smoke from a bad servo motor in a tape drive triggered a fire alarm in computer room ‘A’. The computer centre was divided into two rooms, each with a large mainframe and associated peripherals and with separate power, cooling and fire protection. Within seconds there were deafening bells, a hurried power down of everything and a lightning fast evacuation. Then we watched and waited. Finally the CO2 went off. It was spectacular, particularly as it went off only in computer room ‘B’. Oh well’ back to the drawing board.

Then there was halon. Short for halomethane, this family of compounds react with flames to chemically quelch a fire. This allows them to be effective in a flooding environment at concentrations as low as 5% and they can be safely breathed by humans, even computer operators. It seems like a perfect solution but there were some problems. Firstly the small amounts required allowed high pressure bottles and when released it was almost explosive. I attended a system at a pharmaceutical company just after a fire alarm where where the halon was released beneath the raised floor. All the floor tiles had jumped about a metre and landed everywhere. It left a steel support grid about two metres above the concrete sub-floor which would have made it impossible for anyone to move about fighting fires or doing anything else. There was no fire.

Another problem with the huge pressure change on release is the accompanying temperature drop. This effect is the basis of any air conditioning system but when ice cold halon meets hot running computer power supplies the results can be devastating. I have seen a fine mainframe almost wrecked by this and requiring weeks for repairs.

Aside from these issues it turns out that releasing halon gives you sunburn. Indirectly admittedly but, like freon, the released halon rises to the stratosphere where it reacts with and destroys the ozone layer. (So they say) So halon disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Do you know what the current preferred fire fighting compound is for computer rooms? H2O. Yep, water. Sprinklers are easy to install and manage, the water lowers the temperature of any burning compound and quickly puts out a fire. In the mostly low voltage environments of large computers it doesn’t even cause short circuit damage and it turns out that most people power a computer off when they hear a fire alarm, either manually or automatically. Once you dry out the system there is not usually much damage to repair. As an example have you ever dropped your mobile phone in your swimming pool? I have. Open it, leave it in the sun for a day or so and “hey presto” all good usually. Coffee in your keyboard? Try soaking it in your kitchen sink with the dishwashing water and then air dry thoroughly. It often works.

One last fire related anecdote that still irks me after about 25 years. We had a small system at a major library which also had a Fujitsu system back when they were known as Facom. There was a fire in a nearby room and all the computers were engulfed in thick, acrid smoke all day while the fire was fought and beaten. We spent a week dismantling, cleaning and polishing all the disks and generally washing everything. We were very proud to have restored the system and made thousands in maintenance revenue. Our Japanese friends did not bother. They just wrote off the system and used the insurance payout to sell the library a new one. Several millions in revenue. Bugger.

I hope you never have to face a fire yourself.



Long Term Archive IX

What media will you use to store your everlasting data? We have discussed the issues with keeping the spinning brown
stuff (Disks) going due to mechanical issues. We have also mentioned the chemical decomposition and coercivity decay of magnetic tape over time. I have admitted my predilection for physical records that do not require fancy technology to recover so I like rock paintings, engravings and ink on paper. It is difficult however to balance the convenience of storing a terabyte of data on a half kilo, two hundred dollar disk drive with the mountain of paper required for the equivalent in written pages. (Approximately five hundred million pages)

Back in the nineteen nineties some guy tried to market a system which converted data to a 2-D barcode which could be printed on any printer. It could be photocopied or faxed and it could be input as data again by a simple scanner and some software. It stored 4MB on one A4 page. That’s about the same as two thousand typewritten pages. I really liked this but it never caught on. Even so, you would need two hundred and fifty thousand such encoded pages to match the aforementioned hard disk. (1TB)

This brings me to the optical disk. CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray have tiny physical pits which are read by a laser and although the players might be obsolete or just worn out in the future, the pits should still be there even if the Martians have to read them bit by bit through a microscope. Of course the encoding is digital and it is not just zeroes and ones but a special code (Atkinson code) to eliminate strings of the same bit. Someone could work it out.

You may have heard of CD rot or the discolouration of early CD plastic due to oxygen getting in. The gold CDs were less vulnerable to this than the polished aluminium substrate examples but it has all been solved with an epoxy edge layer. Anyway, it only applied to pre-pressed commercial CDs and DVDs such as music and movies. Your own data goes on CD/DVD-R or -RW which use dyes and the manufacturers assure us they will last for 100 years.

Still, 100 years is not that much. Imagine if the oldest recorded history we had was news articles on the Wright brothers flight or ‘House Rule’ being accepted for Ireland or turning of the first sod for Canberra. I’m still waiting for the next breakthrough technology in long term storage.



Long Term Archive VII - What's the answer?

If you have been following my rambling rants you might think that I am about to suggest the best technology for your long term archiving needs. Well, not today. We might discuss some hardware and software options down the track but the most important component is a piece of wetware- the ‘Trusted Adviser’. Only you know your desired outcome but others may be better equipped to get you there. It might be your I.T. Vendor, application provider, third party consultant or your wife. No matter how well equipped you or your team think you are there is always room for advice, even if you ignore it.

I recall a story from my distant past when I worked on ledger machines. These electro-mechanical monsters (mostly mechanical) would use a striped card per account. The idea was that you pull Mr Jones’ card from the filing cabinet and feed it into the beast. It would read the account details, balances etc and await input. You would then key in details of the current transaction and the animal would print a line in the ledger, update totals and add details to the magnetic stripe on the ledger card. Then you replace the card, get the next one and so on. You end up with a printed ledger and updated account cards.

We had a small business customer who decided that we were ripping him off for the cost of blank cards so he went out to tender. The winning tender was a printer who duly delivered 1,000 nice, new cards all neatly printed with lines and logos and smelling of lavender. (Just kidding about the smell) They didn’t work. After a week of inconvenience, wasted time, costly service calls, anger, frustration and torn out hair, it was discovered that the printer had innocently printed the brown stripe down the side of the card with no idea that it was supposed to be magnetic oxide. He was not aware of its significance.

Everybody had a good laugh at the business owners expense and we delivered a new box of cards. In the end, the customer was out of pocket, behind time and embarrassed. The printer got no repeat business and wasted a lot of time. We had delayed our sale and somehow came out looking like the bad guys for not making obvious the purpose of the stripe.

The real problem was that the business owner did not trust us. (Probably our fault). He did not turn to someone with appropriate knowledge for independent advice. Good business relationships are gold. I encourage you to work on developing a mutually beneficial relationship with a ‘trusted advisor’ wherever you can find him or her.



We’ve seen that technologists can tell a lot about our past from geology, geography, artefacts and bits of bodies but to really know what people were thinking and doing we had to wait for writing. Sure we had edicts carved in stone but not every Joe Blow had his own obelisk.  The Egyptians were first past the post office with the invention of papyrus, sheets of material made from bashing reeds which only grew along the Nile. We get the word for paper from papyrus which is ironic because the Chinese invented paper itself based on cotton fibre much later. The papyrus plant would not grow in Europe so very thin leather known as parchment was developed.

Now we had the technology to record knowledge but it was still expensive and so still limited to royalty, the church and the filthy rich. Plus there was no way to copy a sheet of papyrus or parchment except by hand and the only people who could read and write were royal scribes or monks and naturally their focus was on their own business. Rarely, they would look elsewhere to record some mathematical or biological breakthroughs but mainly these were decrees and commandments.
I have ignored pictorial art because the topic is becoming wider than I expected but I am sure you are familiar with things like the Bayeux Tapestry which is our best record of the Battle of Hastings. There are plenty of historical events and people recorded in paint and stored in the archives.

The invention of papyrus, parchment and paper marked the birth of data archiving. See, we finally got there. It quickly became obvious that information recorded on irreplaceable sheets of material required great care in handling and storage. I bet you’ve heard of the mighty Library of Alexandria which was burnt down by Big Julie Caesar. I always thought this was the end of much recorded knowledge but in my research for this I discovered that it might not have suffered too badly in that attack, that most of the books were hand copies of others in Rhodes and Rome and that there are three subsequent events which may have seen the demise of this library.  Either way it is not there now.
Imagine what could happen with the loss of a single copy. Maybe the Roman aqueducts were actually railway bridges for bronze locomotives whose plans are long lost. Maybe the Minoans weren’t lost but developed space travel and just left.
Real paper, based on cotton fibre, appeared in China in the 2nd century but the secrets involved in the process were closely protected such that it was a thousand years before the secrets were revealed to Europe via the Moors in Spain. If only the Chinese had as much respect for other peoples’ commercial secrets these days! The availability of this relatively cheap paper led to less important stuff like literature emerging and we still have original copies of Beowolf, the first English poem and Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. 
Modern paper, based on wood pulp is one of the many (?) Canadian inventions of the 19th century. Unfortunately, this new paper stuff turns yellow and brittle with age so it is disappearing faster than the earlier sheets of papyrus and parchment. For example, the Magna Carta, written in 1297 on vellum (fine parchment) is in better condition than the American Declaration of Independence. (1776) Have you ever seen the effort put in to preserve these documents.
This is one example of the challenges facing long term archiving. It also shows that new technology which brings lower cost and greater convenience is not necessarily conducive to long term storage.  I am going to get around to computer technology but next time let’s look at the advent of printing and its impact on the ordinary man.





Once we started making things some of them were destined to last forever. There are museums overflowing with arrowheads, stone axes and shards of pottery. A decent archaeologist can deduce many things about the life of the common man/woman from their belongings especially since most were handmade by the user or a local craftsperson. A pot can reveal much about its purpose from its material, its construction and shape and the type and colour of any glaze. I doubt that future archaeologists (FA) will learn much from your Noritake or Royal Doulton tea set which was imported from Japan or England. Can you think of anything that you have made or procured locally which will still be here in a thousand years? Me neither.
We also leave things behind unintentionally. Our campfires become middens full of stuff that CSI gals could identify immediately.  Our rubbish dumps similarly yield great evidence which is why being a PI is not such an attractive job. Ancient stonemasons left quarry sites. Cave dwellers left bones from their meals. Today we fill the oceans with plastic bags and the earth with plastic packaging. Perhaps we will be known as “Plastic age man.” 
Some pieces have special cultural or religious significance. There are many churches around the world with pieces from the cross, so many in fact,that there are debates as to how much wood would be collected if all the pieces were reassembled.  I am sure there are some fraudulent pieces and so begins our attempt to rewrite history but more of that later. Did I mention the nails from this cross?
When we think of the oldest human remains we usually visualise mummies from Egypt from as many as 5,000 years ago but there are South American examples several millennia older still. Modern doctors and radiologists have been able to examine these ‘archives’ and discover diseases, dental conditions, diets and general wear and tear from different occupations. Unintentionally mummified humans have turned up in peat bogs, glaciers and other places where there is no oxygen.
Apart from these complete bodies there are plenty of skeletons in tombs and catacombs and generally scattered about. Some have revealed how certain weapons of war were used and I particularly like the recent analysis of shoulder and elbow deformations showing on the skeletons of young longbow archers from the Middle Ages. Again there are sacred pieces. Check out the finger of St Thomas, supposedly the one he stuck in Jesus’ wounds to eradicate his doubts.
 There are so many fingers and toenails of saints that there must have been plenty of them and some might have been closely related to Kali (Hindi goddess with 24 arms)
Recently the body of King Richard III was discovered beneath a carpark in England. He was left there, presumably before it was a carpark, sometime about 600 years ago after losing in the Wars of the Roses. Analysis of his bones has revealed his curvature of the spine as immortalized by Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal in the Shakespeare play but he was not short and was quite strong. It also showed his many wounds both from the Battle of Bosworth Field and the many blows his body received after death while being dragged through town to show his followers. (A bit like the Blackhawks pilots in Somalia)
Note that we still have not mentioned data archiving but we’ll get there.