ASCII by Jason Scott

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Or Reuse the Tapes (Backing Up’s Dirty Secret) —

While I’m in a “take photos of things and talk about them” mood, let me mention an acquisition from a while ago. It’s a pile of tapes. I bought them at auction, this one, in fact.

I was won over by the description, which was basically this:

For sale on eBay: 35 Cassettes. On them is a full backup of aBBS, yes One GIANT collection of files from a major bbs that was shut down about 5 years ago. It ran on PCBoard 14.5 but all the files are individually zipped and can be extracted and used without concern for any bbs issues. Vintage, many possibly old files, some still quite applicable, some not. Geneology files, thousands and thousands of them. Games, Utilities, the works. Mostly PC and Windows, some mac. This is a complete backup of over 100 categories of software and files and takes up 33 DC2000XL tapes and 2 TR3’s. You could buy to use the files, or buy to reuse the tapes.

Perhaps some of you are happy that a person of my temperament and goals has acquired the tapes and not someone who needed a little extra storage space.

I got these back in August and when I’ve had time, I’ve tried to see about the process of extracting the information off the tapes. I have not been very successful. The description is likely rather accurate, but there’s additional factors. First, a tape drive has to be found. I purchased some tape drives that would hold some of these tapes. (Bear in mind that the description mentions two kinds of tapes but there’s actually 4 or 5: a medley of tape types from what looks to be a decade of operation. Fair enough.

But even trying to bring the data over from the tapes that fit in the tape drives and connected to Windows (these were without a doubt on windows and DOS) has not been very successful.

Here’s the dirty little secret I mentioned: these tape backup systems used crazy proprietary formats. The software that backs them up is commercial. I can’t find restore utilities to save my life. I’m not going crazy at the moment tracking down every possible lead yet (documentary comes first) but this is a fact: stuff backed up just a few years ago is going to be quite the operation to extract. I approached a commercial entity about restoring, and they quoted me $100, per tape, if I could exactly describe what format they’re in. $3500, what a bargain. My current vector of solution is to create a Restoring Machine, which will allow me to pull a lot of stuff off this dead media. This will take a bit of time.

I mention this because sometimes people wonder about my immediate reaction to just “throwing stuff into a database”, my love of flat files, the slow way I adopt some things, like javascript or the CANVAS attribute or why I don’t gleefully load everything into PHP or stuff that’s “standard”. It’s a habit that leads to stuff like this.

I have 10 years of BBS history on these tapes.

I can’t get them.

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  1. Josef Kenny says:

    I was given a task a few months ago to move an entire backup archive of various documents over a 3 or 4 year period off of 3.5″ floppies. By far the hardest stage (more so than the tedious feeding of disks) was simply finding out how they were formatted and what godawful proprietary backup program had archived the data. As for the “Restoring Machine” idea, somebody on Slashdot had a similar one,

  2. Michael Kohne says:

    I once did a co-op (many moons ago) where I was required to move some data off of the 8″ floppies onto 5 1/4″s. Fortunately, my boss grabbed (from somewhere in the building) an old CP/M computer that had 2 8″ drives and 2 5 1/4″ drives. It even had software to do the transfer.

    I ended up having to guess at which of the dozens of formats that it supported to use.

    Not fun.

  3. Shannon Harris says:

    I had a hard time recently just trying to recover data from 1998 that was backed up on ZIP100 disks. I had my old Zip drive, but could not find the power cord. I ended up transferring about 10 of those disks worth of data onto a thumb drive at Kinkos.

  4. andy v (phoenix) says:

    Are those QIC-40/80 tapes? I still actually have a drive for those, although I haven’t used it in a while.. I had a DOS program for it, but it worked under Win98 just fine. I’d have to dig deeper to figure out just what program that was and who made the drive, and I think the tapes I had may be gone now.. but I’m betting those are QICs..

  5. Chris says:

    I can recall the tape backups that we used at one of my jobs long ago being notoriously unreliable..after a certain number of cycles, the tapes just wouldn’t work anymore. Unfortunately, back in the days of 100 megabyte hard drives, before CD-Rs and flash drives, tapes were the only economical way to backup mass amounts of data.

    Good luck Jason, I hope your tape trove yields many treasures.

  6. Patrick Yeon says:

    I know this probably goes against some deeply ingrained need to sort, categorize, and see everything you’ve got there first, but if not, let the internet do it for you. Can you get binary dumps of these tapes (equivalent to a CD’s .iso) and just throw them up, as a challenge to anbody that can extract the files from them?

  7. Jason Scott says:

    You have misjudged me. I’d gladly put stuff up if I was able to successfully pull of binary images. In fact, I even downloaded just such a program to try, and was unsuccessful. This is all more about the problem that exists in backups than this particular issue, which is one of dozens I face in projects.

  8. Flack says:

    If you are looking for old tape backup software, let me know. I have archives too.

  9. Kieron says:

    I had to store some tape backuped PC stuff in 1995…I decided if anyone ever wanted to restore it they would find it nearly impossible, so I stored THE WHOLE SYSTEM (CPU fully loaded with all software incl. the opsys, tape drive, etc.) offsite in one big box.

  10. Lazlo Nibble says:

    I have this fantasy gadget. It’s like the pickup on an optical scanner, but instead of measuring light it measures magnetic flux. It’s very very high resolution and extremely sensitive. When you pass a magnetic medium over this gadget (or pass the gadget over a magnetic medium) the output is like an “image” of the magnetic fields on that medium. If you have that, you never need to track down the original hardware again: decoding the content is just a software problem. Archivists would sacrifice limbs for something like this.