Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Trap of Failing to Migrate

No, this post isn't about birds getting stuck in the frozen north, it is about keeping up with technological changes. In the last few days I have been contacted by two people with genealogical data on 3.5 inch floppy disks. They were both trying to preserve work done years before and move it to a more current format. As for my 3.5 floppy disks, my wife decided they were all out of date and dumped the hundreds I had left. So far, I haven't missed anything, so I suppose that was a valid housekeeping move.

Data migration is one of those strange topics that seem to lack an audience. From the comments I receive to my posts, I can only assume that the vast majority of my readers are other Bloggers around the world. I can also safely assume that anyone who knows enough about computers to read my blog posts, probably has already had their bad experience with lost data due to technological obsolescence and doesn't need this reminder. But here is the reminder any way-- MIGRATE YOUR DATA.

There are really a number of challenges to maintaining data integrity and preserving the information; they include physical limitations of various data storage options, software changes and the fact that preserved data may simply become inaccessible through changes in hardware storage. For example, how many of you still have a few old iomega zip drive cartridges laying around in drawers or on shelves. Have you looked at the connector on your old zip drive lately? Guess what? My new computer doesn't have that type of connector. But I could buy an adapter. Likewise for my old SCSI drives, I just might get them to work with my new computer if I buy a SCSI to USB adapter. As a matter of fact, there is also a USB 3.5" Floppy Disk Drive available from TEAC or even from Walmart.

Does this all mean that the problem of data migration is a bugaboo? Not at all. There is absolutely no guarantee that even the adapters will work with future hardware and software. The data migration problem is real and can affect anyone with any type of software and hardware combination.

In the case of the specific inquiries I mentioned above, these old files on 3.5 floppy disks were likely old Personal Ancestral File (PAF) versions also. By the way, here is a detailed description of how to migrate older versions of PAF files on newer computers from the Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group. There is one key phrase in the instructions on migrating PAF, "The option you choose may be limited by which versions of the PAF software you have available on your computer." What if you don't have old versions of PAF on your computer? Are you dead in the water? Well, actually not. PAF versions are still available on the Internet. As a matter of fact the Ancestral Quest genealogy program will open most of the older versions of PAF without any difficulty at all. You only have to find some way of getting the file onto an computer with the Ancestral Quest program. As for me, I still have PAF on my computer and also have the latest version of Ancestral Quest.

The real data migration problem is just beginning. We are using more and more online programs. Many people have their data locked up in online family trees. As long as you keep your computer system up to date and buy a new computer every once in a while, you will likely keep moving your data on to the newer programs and computer. But what happens to online data? Who will assure you that changes in the operating systems and programs won't result in the loss of compatibility with the data online? No one. I have the same question about so-called lifetime guarantees. Whose lifetime? I like one computer guarantee that I saw recently that said the product was guaranteed until the company decided to quit supporting it. The solution is always maintain a copy of your data in a genealogy program on your computer. If you want to share online, that's great. But there is no substitute (yet) for having your data under your own control.

What do I suggest? Every time there is a software upgrade, I upgrade. I then make sure the new program still recognizes my old files. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have spent literally days at a time converting old files into newer formats. Although the process reminds me of how many old data formats (like old 78 rpm records) I have had to deal with in the past.

OK, so what can you do to minimize data loss.

1. Keep upgrading your backup systems. Buy new hard drives, watch for newer technology and keep moving your data.

2. Keep upgrading your software. Don't forget your old files, save them in the new software format while the programs still recognize the old formats.

3. Buy a new computer system every so often. Watch and wait until there have been substantial microprocessor upgrades and then make the change.

4. Don't leave valuable data in old boxes on shelves in closets. If it is worth having it is worth preserving. Move the data to your new computers and new storage devices.

Good Luck. You might need it.


  1. Since I have started genealogy recently I do not have this data storage problem since my back up places are up to date.

    My first computer is an HP from 2004 and it has a slot for the floppy disc, although I have never used it, and I haven't a clue how to use it. Its use will remain one of my lifes mysteries, never to be solved.

    I stored my info on CD's in the past but have moved on to flash drives and external hard drives. I am researching a new computer to upgrade soon.

  2. I've been forced to migrate my data over the years many, many times. In the 1970s I was taught to "store my family data" on 3x 5 cards, and later migrated that data onto acid free paper. In the 1980s my first computer (an Apple IIe) didn't have the power to do genealogy, but then I had a succession of IBM and Windows machines. I had to migrate my data from PAF to Family Tree Maker and in and out of various new computers over the years, survived several hard drive crashes because of several styles of backup (floppies, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, external drives, now "in the cloud)! If I can do this, anyone else can keep up! I finally tossed those 3x5 cards last year.

  3. ANy suggestions?

    I have 110 3.5 inch floppies 2SHD with thousands of hours of work on them in an old 1982 or so PAF.
    3 of them are missing. How can I recover this information and move it to current PAF! Help!