Spectrum Data digs a whole new niche

Perth's Spectrum Data has become a world leader in the storage industry, thanks to its understanding of how to extract data from near-extinct tape drives. Today, Simon Sharwood explains the company's origins and services.

The TI 961 tape drive looks out of place in Spectrum Data's suburban Perth offices. The size of a fridge and with two big silvery tape reels its dominant visual feature, the machines seem like they belong in a cold war bunker, spinning furiously to calculate the trajectory of communism-thwarting missiles.

Instead, the machines are pressed into service performing Spectrum Data's speciality of keeping data alive for new generations to use and enjoy.

It's a service that few companies around the world can perform as well as Spectrum, a Perth company spun out from another West Australian company four years ago. The parent company, Encon, develops software that assists mining companies to create surveys of areas they are prospecting for minerals.

As part of that work, Encon realised that many older surveys are stored on obsolete 21 track and 9 track tapes. Encon developed a modest practise recovering data from those formats and re-platforming the results to newer tape, until some of its managers decided this aspect of its business had great potential.

One management buy-out later, Spectrum Data was up and running with four employees and a desire to process the millions of 21-track and 9-track tapes that businesses and governments around the world have locked away in their vaults.

Demand for the company's services is strong, partly because it now operates two TI 961s and uses a spare for parts and testing. The company knows of just four other working TI 961's around the world.

Spectrum, however, not only possesses working machines but understands how to make them work, repair them or get the machines to read from decades-old tape.

What is 'stiction'?

"One of the things we come up against is 'stiction'," says David Veale, the company's General Manager. Stiction is short for sticky friction, a condition that strikes when the magnetic layer starts to flake off the underlying plastic tape. The resultant debris jams the heads of any tape drive. Tapes that have lost some of their magnetic coating or degraded in other ways also present other problems: "If you unwind damaged tape, it breaks," Veale says.

Spectrum has seen this kind of problem hundreds of times and is now very confident of securing useful data.

"We 'exercise' tapes to begin with," Veale explains. "That involves running them through a tape drive to get them ready." The next step is to attempt a read. If no data is available, the company tries a variety of tricks, starting with playing tapes at different angles and speeds in the hope of gathering data. And because the old tape machines the company uses can also be cantankerous - tapes may play on one, but not another - the company will try different machines as well. Various other techniques Veale is understandably reluctant to detail can also squeeze data out hard-to-read tapes.

A fleet of 9-track tape drives, mostly IBM machines, works alongside the TI 961s. When tape quality is good, the company will process over 1000 tapes. Stiction or other physical problems slows its output.

Whatever the quality of the tapes, the company's software expertise is as important to its services as its ability to get the best out of ageing hardware.

Many passes, one copy of data

"We read a tape several times using different techniques," Veale explains. "Our own software then creates a complete read as a result of all the different passes."

Once data has been secured from the tape using these methods, Spectrum can then update the recovered data into more modern data formats and copies it onto modern tape cartridges.


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