Yottabytes: Storage and Disaster Recovery

Dec 9 2013   11:33PM GMT

Let’s Get All Nostalgic About Floppy Disks For a Minute

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher

The New York Times published on Friday what we’ve always suspected — that there are agencies in the U.S. federal government that still use floppy disks.

“Every day, The Federal Register, the daily journal of the United States government, publishes on its website and in a thick booklet around 100 executive orders, proclamations, proposed rule changes and other government notices that federal agencies are mandated to submit for public inspection,” writes Jada Smith. “It turns out, however, that the Federal Register employees who take in the information for publication from across the government still receive some of it on the 3.5-inch plastic storage squares that have become all but obsolete in the United States.”

Smith didn’t know which agencies were involved. Thank goodness it’s at least 3 1/2-inch disks, and not 5 1/4-inch (which, incidentally, were designed to be the size of a cocktail napkin because they were invented in a bar), or,  Lord preserve us, 8-inch disks.

Surprisingly, Smith mentioned, the Federal Register is not allowed to accept the data on flash drives or SD cards — only floppy disks or CD-ROM. People can also send the information via a secure email system, but it is expensive and not all agencies have upgraded to it, she writes.

Sony quit making 3 1/2-inch floppy disks in 2010, though even then, people were still using them. “The emergence of alternatives such as the CD-RW, which has a storage capacity almost 500 times that of a floppy, and the internet, which enabled swift transfer of floppy-sized files, were effectively its death knell,” wrote the BBC in 2003, when Dell stopped including 3 1/2-inch drives in its equipment. In an era where people store entire movie collections on personal drives and even laptops now come with at least a terabyte, the notion of a disk that could hold maybe one three-minute song is increasingly quaint.

A BBC News piece at the time printed 40 uses people still had for floppy disks — out of more than 1,000 replies. While a number of them were no longer related to their original purpose, ranging from coasters to tiling floors and roofs, a number of responses reported that they were still necessary for the increasingly arcane equipment they were using.

At this point, the biggest problem with 3 1/2-inch disks is likely not the floppy disks themselves but finding working drives on which to read them and machines that still have drivers for the disk drives. In other words, there may be tons of existing data trapped on floppy disks because we no longer have the drives on which to read them — the problem of the “digital dark ages” that we may be facing as an increasing number of historical records end up stored in formats that are often unreadable in ten years or less.

While people are using this as another way to bludgeon the federal government over its lack of IT sophistication, after the healthcare.gov debacle, chances are that commercial companies — up to one-third of which were still running Windows XP as of earlier this year — probably still have a few machines that use floppy disks as well.

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  • TomLiotta

    ...another way to bludgeon the federal government over its lack of IT sophistication...

    Some give such criticism, and some consider it a virtue. It's possible that there is greater criticism of agencies that waste money by cycling out old "perfectly good PCs" every few years. (Why, those government people surely don't need newer, fancier hardware after just three or four years, do they? After all, my 10-year-old PC still works fine.)

    It's a difficult balance for sure.


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  • FTClark
    This reminds me of a recent discussion where we lamented the tyranny of modern technology because it often mandates a sometimes forced obsolescence. The constant round of updates and purchases of newer, better, bigger, faster stuff is part of the consumer treadmill to BUY, BUY, BUY. I acknowledge the value of improvements but there are also dangers. Sometimes it seems like the idea begins to permeate the modern mindset that we don't need to build, develop, design good stuff because we can always make a new version later and everything will just be replaced anyway. Don't even get me started about phones, cellphones, and smartphones.
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  • ghostdog90025
    Yeah, a lot of us are still using XP Service Pack 3, why should we upgrade to a new more expensive crap OS from MS when XP works just fine and there are plenty of places out there that support it.  If I am ever forced to upgrade from XP, you can bet it'll be to an apple product with a decent OS where you don't even need a antivirus, anti-malware suite, because Apples OS is based on UNIX, which, there may be people who can hack it, but not many and why go to all that work, when MS OS' are low hanging fruit and so easy to hack.  And anyway most of these people Hate Bill Gates and Microsoft, because he is just another sum bag business man, who, when IBM came knocking went out and bought a crap OS called DOS, and MS has never really upgraded from DOS, oh sorry, now its "command line" that the gui sits on, or have they given it a newer name? The point is that DOS, by whatever name, which has always been the basis of MS OSs was never designed to work in a ntworked environment, that is why it is so full of holes, it's like a swiss cheeze.  UNIX, the basis of the newer MAC OSs was designed to work in a networked atmosphere; As for floppy disks, I have a floppy drive on my 2003 Compaq presario, which I upgraded to 2 gigs of ram and made a few other modifications, but it still runs perfectly well, but my IBM Think pad from the same era does not have a floppy drive, so I got a external one, becuase I still use floppys in my Sony Mavica camera, another antique piece of technology that only takes photos in 480X620 resolution, but guss what, that's all you can really see well on a computer screen, and I've been selling stuff on the computer since 1995 and people told me back then, don't bother with these high resolution cameras that these fools go out and spend several hundred to over a $1000 on b/c it only takes longer for their photos to load when people are looking at an auction, and people get pissed off because it's taking so long and just click out of that auction item and go to one where the photos pop right up. the old Sony 620 X 480 floppy disc Mavica's have never let me down; they provide all the detail you can see on a computer screen.  And there are plenty of them for sale at all times on e-Bay, take a look.  So there is one still extant use right there.
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  • TomLiotta

    ...a lot of us are still using XP Service Pack 3, why should we upgrade to a new more expensive crap OS from MS when XP works just fine and there are plenty of places out there that support it.

    The obvious reason to upgrade is that no new Microsoft security updates will be available starting in April. If the system isn't upgraded by then, it will be a system that should no longer connect to the internet. Time is short. The big irritation to me is that it's difficult to skip Vista and jump to Win7 (even though I dislike Win7).

    If Microsoft's business model isn't acceptable, then a switch to Linux or something else is called for.


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