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Taking out the Trash

December 4, 2015

BigGarbageCanTrash, the digital kind, is always a problem these days.  Whether it is at home or the office, we are collecting huge amounts of digital trash all the time and dealing with it seems like something we should pay attention to.  After all, it is taking up space and that could be expensive, right?

Well, not really.

Seemingly like at the beginning of time, when I was first using computers at home, disk space on hard drives and floppies was expensive.  So it was worth plenty of time and effort to delete every single item that could be deleted to make room for other, important stuff.

Another example comes from the early 1980s when I was at Bell Laboratories in Naperville, IL.  We had a box there that was called “the MSS”.  It was, in reality, an IBM 3850 Mass Storage Subsystem which staged data on tape and put it on rotating disks when needed.  The Naperville Computation Center eventually had two of these devices which totaled around 2TB of storage space.  This was needed to contain the massive growth they were experiencing at the time in materials related to the Number 5 ESS, the latest telephone switching system that was being sold at the time.  I didn’t see a price tag for an MSS, but you can assume the system almost certainly cost millions.  Clearly a justification for “taking out the trash” if I ever saw one.

Things have changed and they have changed in substantial ways.  First off there are now requirements for companies to keep all sorts of digital records.  These have to be kept for years and failure to do so can result in substantial fines and sanctions from the government.  A lot of this information is held in email and not every company has fancy email archival systems to manage this.  There is also just common sense that says you might need the email from a lawyer some time in the future, so maybe you should keep it.  This can be applied to all sorts of things that you might not think of immediately as vitally important right now but could be important later.  So just rippling through Outlook deleting stuff might not be the best idea after all.

Same thing with backups.  You can never have too much backup.  If you haven’t established some sort of backup for your computer(s), you might want to think about what you could lose if “something bad” happened to it.  Not only hard drive failures but also accidental deletion of files and theft of the computer should be things you are considering.  There are online services that are available for backing things up or you can have backup space on your network that will make this pretty simple and transparent.  Whatever you choose to go with, back up your files!

So what about all those digital photos that are lying around collecting digital dust?  Well, it used to be that the preferred storage medium for photos was the “photo album”: a book containing pages and pages of photos.  You might remember this sort of a book being brought out to show your prospective spouse sometime, usually something you would like to forget.  Today it seems most photos end up on people’s phones and the only problem with this is that phones are not usually backed up the way we would like them to be.  Often what backup there is isn’t trivial to access and is outside of our control.  This can, as some people found out, lead to other people being able to access these pictures.

But the biggest thing about these pictures is that you often do not delete anything.  So you have the fuzzy picture that didn’t focus properly and the picture with your finger covering up something.  These are right next to the pictures that did work out and when there are 400 pictures on your phone it may be somewhat intimidating to think about going through them to sort out the good ones and delete the bad ones.

All of this leads to a huge growth in personal data just as Bell Labs was seeing a growth in data back in the 1980s.

The question is what should be done about it.  The answer I would like to suggest is nothing.  It simply isn’t worth your time to do anything about it.

Today, at my office we have a small box with four drives in it.  Each drive can hold nearly 6TB (that is a 6 followed by 12 zeros).  It is configured to use the drives as two sets of two drives for a total capacity of about 11.5TB with 100% redundancy.  If a drive fails, nothing is lost because it is mirrored on the other set; simply replace the drive and keep going.  This box cost about $1400 and holds as much as 10 or 11 of the IBM 3850 MSS devices for 1000 times less money.  At home I have a similar box with two 3TB drives in it (that could easily be upgraded to two 6TB drives).  When it was purchased it cost less than $500.  It has complete redundancy like the office box does and it can even be backed up to online services or other similar boxes if the need arises.

The office box is a great place to put stuff that might come in handy.  It is almost certain that it will never be full, no matter what happens.

The home box is used for all sorts of stuff as well as for backing up computers and such.  It could be easily configured for sharing space with mobile devices to enable backing them up as well.  It has a huge photo library on it and all of our phones have the software for displaying pictures and adding new pictures to this repository.  If it ever gets full, I will just get some bigger drives for it and move everything over.

It is my contention that at this point with the price of storage being what it is there is no point in wasting my time looking for things to delete.  It makes more sense to keep them all.  Lazy?  Maybe, but it is important to sort out what it is worth spending time doing.  Today, I don’t think it makes much sense to spend a lot of time trying to decide between what is important to keep and what is trash.  So taking out the trash just isn’t worth the time and effort of doing it.  Keep the trash!

I am not recommending specific NAS devices here.  There are lots and lots of them out there with different services offered and different capabilities.  It is worth looking at different sorts to make sure you understand what is available and what might be useful.  If you want to know what I am using, leave a comment.

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