Yottabytes: Storage and Disaster Recovery

Sep 14 2011   12:25PM GMT

Pigeons, Station Wagons, Blu-ray, and Data Transfer

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher

XKCD on<br /> File Transfers

Sound familiar?

The thing is, it’s true. Even though Internet speeds continue to increase, the amount of data we want to transmit continues to increase, too.

Which is why the various Internet denizens have developed….workarounds for large file transfers, which also provides the opportunity for the wonderful Internet pastime of geekly arguing.

Which brings us to station wagons, pigeons, and Blu-ray.

The canonical statement, by Andrew Tannenbaum in his 1996 book Computer Networks, is basically “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a¬†station wagon¬†full of tapes hurtling down the highway.” And ever since then, there have been numerous websites devoted to how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussions about just what that bandwidth would be.

You can tell how old the websites are based on what figures they use for comparable Internet bandwidth, the size of a magnetic tape, and so on. The Wikipedia entry for “Sneakernet” appears to have the most up-to-date calculations.

(The actual calculation using today’s technologies is left as an exercise for the reader.)

The Internet being the Internet, the calculations have been extended, ranging from petabytes in a sailboat to Blu-ray discs in a 747 (which, as it turns out, would actually be too heavy for a 747 to carry), to, more mundanely, the number of SD cards that fit into a Fed Ex box — as well as the bandwidth of a Netflix movie shipment through the mail.

And then there’s the pigeons.

Really truly, carrier pigeons have been used for a remarkable amount of data transfer in history — not just short messages, and aerial photography predating satellites, but things like blueprints from military installations in the U.S.

In fact, in 1982, Computerworld ran an article about how Lockheed Missile & Space Co. used pigeons to carry microfilm copies of blueprints to a research facility in Santa Cruz, because it was cheaper than printing out and transporting hard copies. And if you have $100 per half hour for someone to dig it up, you can apparently get a copy of Dan Rather introducing a story about it on CBS News.

Consequently, not one but two April Fool’s Internet protocols were developed — Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers, and Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers with Quality Control — for transmitting Internet data by carrier pigeon. The first one was even demonstrated, and while the experiment left something to be desired, Wikipedia points out that “during the last 20 years, the information density of storage media and thus the bandwidth of an Avian Carrier has increased 3 times faster than the bandwidth of the Internet.”

That’s not all. In various remote areas, such as rural U.K., Australia, and parts of South Africa, people have used carrier pigeons to demonstrate that they’re faster than what passes for high-speed Internet there.

The point is this: No matter how fat a pipe you have to the Internet, at some given amount of data, it’s going to be faster, cheaper, or both to use some manual method to ship data on some storage medium. It makes sense for you to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to figure out where the data boundaries are for different mediums and different shipping methods, and update them as technology changes.

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