Why one bit matters.

Sometimes I wonder why I'm in the field of storage. Its not glamorous. Its JBODs, RAID arrays, HBAs, expanders, spinning rust, and all of those things wrapped into enclosures with lots of fans humming. My background is varied, I wrote a file system for my Master's, I worked on one of the biggest Java Business Frameworks ever (the SanFrancisco Project at IBM), and I've danced between the application and infrastructure space more than once.

I often think about my "ideal" job, I've even pondered it here on my blog...and take note, the new Jack Johnson CD is very good and I am ripping it to 8-track real soon now. Personally, I love the field of digital preservation, XAM is in the right direction, and long term digital archives are important to people-kind.

But still, this storage business, there is something to it.

I watched my friend get their eyes lasered to correct their vision this week. While I was watching, I was able to sit with one of the assistants and pepper her with questions, it is an astounding process. Basically, as I understand it, the Doctors use the scanners and computers to

  • map the surface of each eye
  • analyze the surface to understand why the vision is incorrect
  • create several corrective treatments
  • the doctor looks at the corrective treatments and adds their wisdom to make the right decision (a lot goes into this, like the health of the patient, the age, their profession, whatever...)
  • the doctor may tweak the map of places that need adjustments
  • the updated map is loaded into the "laser"
  • the patient comes in, gets prepped, the doctor aims the laser and sets the program loose
  • the "laser" jumps around the eye zapping away
  • the doctor reassembles the eye
  • the patient goes home

Coolness. But then the geek in me took over, I asked what I could about the machine, backup generators, power, moving the data, mapping the eye, etc... But my head kept thinking about the storage and computer software.

What if a bit is wrong? What if the bits are stored away but due to some battery backup cache being down, it doesn't really get stored and the out of date map is actually in place? What if one tiny point "ages" and becomes rust and there is no checksumming to see it "rotted"? These are people's eyes, you know? Would you want to be the storage vendor that supplied storage that messed up someone's eye because you didn't get the signal / noise ratio on the cabling right?

I've been thinking a lot about digital photography lately as well. While its not people's eyes, it is still an incredibly fragile process. In fact, many of the world's best photographers still do not use digital, and for very good reason. Even when you purchase photographs, you pay a premium price for pictures that have not gone through the digitization process.

Think about this, if a person takes a picture, the CCD (or whatever they are these days) takes the light and transfers it to a memory card. The memory card gets transferred to a laptop hard drive (in my case), a variety of backups are made and I move many of the pictures to SmugMug.

That's a lot of storage along the way. Now, let's say (God forbid), my house burns down. I get my pictures back from SmugMug and one of my pictures has a bit that rotted away.

Now, that is one tiny bit of imperfection to some people. To a professional, that picture is no longer an original. At that point, you have to decide to toss away your artistic integrity and photoshop the point to be like the ones near to it, or just toss the picture from your portfolio. Either way, the picture is never the same.

How would you like to be the one that sold the storage unit that allowed the bit to rot or be stored incorrectly, or archived incorrectly and destroyed that person's memory, that one perfect picture that was meant to be a keepsake forever.

Well, when you think about it, building storage units and management for those storage units is probably not as glamorous as owning the software or companies that specialize in photo archiving, or "lasering" people's eyes, or storing original recordings for artists, or archives of space travel. But those folks have to pick storage units from a company...and if you are the company they pick and you fulfill your moral responsibility to supply checksumming in your file systems, and well-tested storage that may occasionally be late to market to ensure that a memory is not lost or an eye doesn't get fried...you know, that's pretty rewarding.

Cheers to all of my co-workers at Sun who believe storage is more than a spinning drive or a paycheck.


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