Would You Believe It?

The following article was printed in Computer Shopper, June 1992 issue (page 152). Commentary follows.

The Big Squeeze

Compression Scheme Shatters Storage Logjam

Todd Daniel believes he has found a way to revolutionize data storage as we know it.

DataFiles/16, a zip-style data-compression product released by Wider Electronic Bandwidth Technologies (WEB), allows users to compress data at a 16-to-1 ratio. That’s a major advance when you compare it with Stacker 2.0’s 2-to-1 ratio.

DataFiles/16 relies purely on mathematical algorithms; it works with almost any binary file. Because of the math involved, the ratio of compression is directly proportional to the size of the uncompressed file. In order to get the full effect of 16-to-1 compression, the original file must be at least 64K.

During a demonstration at our offices, Daniel, the company’s vice president of research and development, compressed a 2.5Mb file down to about 500 bytes, four levels of DataFiles/16. Because successive levels compress at a lower ratio as the volume of the file decreases, DataFiles/16 directly zips and unzips files to the chosen level.

After compressing a file, users can compress the data another eight times with DataFiles/16. This gives DataFiles/16 the potential to compress most files to under 1,024 bytes, whether the original file is 64K or 2.6 gigabytes. By comparison, SuperStor 2.0’s new compression technique can be performed only once.

By June, WEB plans to release its first hardware packages utilizing the same method. The two new device-driver cards will operate impeccably, compressing and decompressing data on the fly at ratios of 8-to-1 and 16-to-1, respectively.

A standard defragmentation program will optimize data arrangement, while an optional disk cache will speed access time. Both cards will come in DOS, Macintosh, and Unix versions. The DOS version is scheduled for a July release, and the company says the others will follow shortly.

The implications of WEBs data-compression technique in the communications field have yet to be calculated, but Daniel says a 16-to-1 ratio could save certain companies up to 5 percent of their storage costs. If DataFiles/16 lives up to its early promise, data compression will have taken a quantum leap forward.    — Jim O’Brien

Oh Really?

So much Computer Shopper. Why have you (most likely) never heard of DataFiles/16? Because it was a scam, of course. And since it wasn’t published in the April issue, it was presumably not a hoax by Computer Shopper itself but rather by the company behind it.

The article perhaps highlights the terrible fate of journalists: Writing about things they don’t understand. A computer scientist, or really anyone with a passing familiarity with information theory, would immediately recognize the claims as impossible and preposterous, if enticing. The only question about the article isn’t whether the whole thing was a scam, only how many people were in on it.

DataFiles/16, like other similar scams, was most likely an attempt to defraud investors rather than scam end users. Such compression could never work, so the question is only whether the software failed to achieve anything like the claimed compression ratios, or if it did… and could never decompress to anything resembling the original files.

These days it may be more difficult to set up compression scams, but the hucksters certainly didn’t disappear, they just moved elsewhere.

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56 Responses to Would You Believe It?

  1. zeurkous says:

    Alright, it could’ve been like that, medoesn’t recall *exactly*,
    but fact remains that mewas never ‘disappointed’ by the drives’
    actual capacities.

    To unwind the stack a little, PS pointed out above that formatting
    a disk is not the same as formatting a file system. Me’d like to add
    that at least in the UNIX world, ‘formatting a disk’ is a now very
    uncommon operation (especially w/ the demise of floppies), while the
    very diff ‘creating a filesystem’ has survived and is not even limited
    to disks (creating an fs on tape or in a regular file usually works
    just fine).

    Due to mess-dos only being originally designed to work w/ floppies, and
    there was no expected compatibility w/ other systems, the operation
    called ‘formatting’, there, includes creating a file system, the latter
    of which has become the primary meaning of the term on windoze, which
    inherited the naming convention from mess-dos (me’s not sure how VMS did
    it, which is relevant for NT). Hence the term ‘low-level format’ when
    referring to hard drives, which aren’t usually formatted as often as
    floppies were, ’cause hdds became the more complex and varied sort of
    device (in most cases).

  2. techfury90 says:

    The command to create a filesystem on a disk in VMS is INITIALIZE. It only does a LLF on floppies. LLFing hard disks was done using using special diagnostic utilities.

  3. Michal Necasek says:

    Same as PCs. Low-level format of hard disks often required vendor-specific utilities (anything beyond dumb ST-506 drives, anyway). DOS FORMAT always discovered and marked bad floppy sectors during formatting; I think that was possible for hard disks too, FORMAT read the hard disk entire partition though it didn’t low-level format the drive. Utilities like Norton Disk Doctor had the ability to check for bad sectors and mark them in the FAT (both floppies and hard disks).

  4. MiaM says:

    Oh, the pain. On ST-506 drives there were usually one of two or three ways to format the drive. On 8-bit ISA cards you usually fired up debug and tried to jump a few bytes in the eprom, for example g=c800:5 or similar. On 16-bit ISA cards that were 100% compatible with the card IBM supplied with their AT you used one of the several tools for this class of cards. Otherwise you usually had to use a vendor specific program, or maybe in rare cases you could press some key during boot or maybe use debug.

    I don’t miss this a single bit. Perhaps the only good thing about this is that you had a chance to save data from bad disks using Spinrite from Gibson Research.

  5. Richard Wells says:

    Compared to earlier systems, I liked the IBM PC system for formatting drives. Widely documented and lots of third parties devising easy alternate software. Having ROM capacity surge while prices dropped was very freeing for system design.

    Several examples of how bad non-IBM PC drives got follow.

    DEC didn’t let some systems conduct a LLF on floppy disks; the disks had to be purchased preformatted. At first, this was to handle a bug with early drives but later became a clear money grab. Some people tracked down programs that ran on an IBM AT to conduct the SSQD initialization needed for the RX50.

    With disk packs, Diablo shipped them unformatted and Control Data would format and test them in house. No user methods were provided. Waiting 6 hours for a technician to install and format a drive was untenable. An exception to the idea was the Xerox Alto which had tools to format packs and install file systems and to transfer files erasing them from the first pack but lacked any function to test for bad sectors. Oops.

    TRS-80 Model 2 had one of the more full featured format programs which did low level format, tested disk, laid out file system and installed system software if needed. Requiring 10 consecutive tracks to be flawless for the system software rather makes it necessary to do all the steps with one program.

  6. zeurkous says:

    That sounds like Xerox alright, bad things don’t exist, they can’t

    Though that attitude has spread quite a bit since.

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