Story 2015-10-10 Q32V Why the floppy disk is still used today

Why the floppy disk is still used today

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in hardware on (#Q32V)
story imageWhen was the last time that you used a floppy disk? While the average user might not, there are those out there who can’t settle for anything else. “In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of industrial machines were built around floppy disks, which were high-tech of the time. They were built to last fifty years.” But floppy disks were not. Replacing the machines would seem the logical option, but many of them are too valuable to scrap, or can’t be easily replaced by a modern equivalent. ATMs, and some aviation tech are prime examples of devices that still have a need for data introduced through a floppy drive.

Last year, a broadcast of 60 Minutes surprised many viewers with the discovery that 8-inch floppy disks were still the preferred method of removable storage for the computers in a U.S. Air Force nuclear silo. The security of this outmoded technology was difficult to replicate with modern materials. “The floppy disks and associated technology are tried and true,” I was told. “As you can imagine, we want to ensure the utmost in reliability and efficacy when operating such a critical weapon system. Therefore, if a system is ‘old,’ but still reliable, we are inclined to use it." When it comes to mission-critical hardware that literally controls a potential nuclear holocaust, “tried and true” carries more weight than “new and improved.”

There are many niche reasons that an organization or an individual would continue to use floppy disks in 2015, but the audience isn’t large enough to make production of new disks a winning proposition. There’s a finite amount of floppy disks in the world, and that puts a limit on their usage out in the wild.
Reply 17 comments

Capacity... (Score: 1, Insightful)

by Anonymous Coward on 2015-10-11 00:18 (#Q3QC)

The only reason my workplace doesn't use microdisks is because transferring 5 gigabytes of SD video on them would take bloody weeks.

Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1)

by tanuki64@pipedot.org on 2015-10-11 11:51 (#Q4S7)

The security of this outmoded technology was difficult to replicate with modern materials.
This I don't understand. In what way are floppy disks more reliable? Sure, everything is bigger on a 8-inch floppy disks. You probably can see individual bits with a magnifying glass <---- slight exaggeration, I know. But does this really matter? A floppy contains data. In really mission-critical environments I certainly would not rely alone on what data I get from some hardware... regardless of new or old hardware. And exactly for this reason all kinds of techniques like checksums were invented to detect data corruptions.

My guess is that old floppy drives might be more resistant against EMPs. But then... perhaps someone should tell them about punch tapes. Even more secure. Can even be read manually in case of an emergency.

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 2, Insightful)

by evilviper@pipedot.org on 2015-10-11 14:03 (#Q51C)

I assume they're talking about sneakernet, in general, being more secure than any kind of live data connection. The critical system can be completely isolated.

Punch-cards may have too-little capacity to be practical (otherwise, they could just write it out) and I know the card reader is much more elaborate and prone to mechanical failures than a floppy drive. EMP isnt likely a big concern, as they're already shielded and sheltered deep undeground.

And finally:

"The disks also have a built-in protection against portable-storage attacks like Stuxnet, which was introduced to Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant via a thumb drive, since the disks don’t have nearly enough space to hold such a sophisticated piece of malware."

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1)

by tanuki64@pipedot.org on 2015-10-11 15:34 (#Q56V)

I assume they're talking about sneakernet, in general, being more secure than any kind of live data connection. The critical system can be completely isolated.
Critical systems can also be completely isolated when thumb dives are used.
Punch-cards may have too-little capacity to be practical
According to Google such an 8" floppy has a capacity of 80kb to 1024kb. Punch tapes should in theory have an unlimited capacity.
The disks also have a built-in protection against portable-storage attacks like Stuxnet,
Sounds convincing... at first glance. But it is not that they downgraded their modern technology with 8" floppies after Stuxnet. If this really was the reason to keep the old tech, for the first time people had a foresight, which I would call superhuman. The 5 1/4" disks came out 1978. They were more stable and convenient than the 8" disk. 1982 the even more stable 3-1/2" disk was introduced. What kept them from using those? Do you really think that 1982 someone was able to anticipate Stuxnet?

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1, Interesting)

by Anonymous Coward on 2015-10-11 16:40 (#Q5AZ)

The 5 1/4" disks came out 1978. They were more stable and convenient than the 8" disk. 1982 the even more stable 3-1/2" disk was introduced.
For certain values of "stable". In my experience, each step smaller increased errors and reduced reliability. 8" disks recorded in 1986 remain readable, while 3.5" disks from 2000 have deteriorated to unreadability, just sitting in the box. More convenient (mostly because you don't need as many disks), yes, but it's a high price to pay for convenience.

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1)

by tanuki64@pipedot.org on 2015-10-11 16:56 (#Q5C2)

Perhaps. I never had any of those systems long enough to do such a comparison myself. But all magnetic media deteriorate in time. So I guessthat even 8" disks have to be refreshed from time to time.

I wonder how magneto-optical media compare to 8" floppies.

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1)

by evilviper@pipedot.org on 2015-10-11 17:44 (#Q5D3)

I wonder how magneto-optical media compare to 8" floppies.
Sony used-to warranty the data retention of their write-once M.O. media (for 25-years IIRC), and would pay for data recovery if they failed.

These days they say their MO discs are tested to last 50+ years:

http://www.sony.net/Products/Media/DataMedia/products/ProDiscDATA/index.html

They also claim 10,000 write/erase cycles and 1million reads for their rewritable MO discs, but don't expect 50-year storage for those.

Sounds good, I know, until you check on the pricing...

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1)

by tanuki64@pipedot.org on 2015-10-11 17:44 (#Q5EZ)

Sounds good, I know, until you check on the pricing...
But I am not military. I doubt that they are fazed by this prices. Furthermore, when no new 8" floppies are produced anymore and I still had a good stash, if they wanted to buy them from me, I doubt the would be much cheaper than the Sony MOs ;-)

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1)

by evilviper@pipedot.org on 2015-10-11 17:27 (#Q5CN)

Critical systems can also be completely isolated when thumb dives are used.
You should at least have said CDs/DVDs or other similar data-only media. Thumb drives are HORRIBLE for security. The protocol is extremely complex, perfect for innumerable types of exploitation.

A thumb drive could easily be an input device, keylogger, etc., instead of a dumb storage device:

http://www.thice.nl/hide-your-data-in-plain-sight-usb-hardware-hiding/

http://www.irongeek.com/i.php?page=security/programmable-hid-usb-keystroke-dongle

It could cause electrical damage to connected systems:

http://kukuruku.co/hub/diy/usb-killer

It can have bad firmware that causes subtle corruption:

http://www.wired.com/2014/10/code-published-for-unfixable-usb-attack/

etc.
Punch tapes should in theory have an unlimited capacity.
I don't want any life-critical systems to depend on proper and careful handling a fiddly roll of paper tape. Floppies are incredibly convenient and extremely durable by comparison to paper tape. And what about very high-humidity?
Do you really think that 1982 someone was able to anticipate Stuxnet?
No, it was a happy accident that not upgrading provided some benefits, but it is a benefit just the same.

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1)

by tanuki64@pipedot.org on 2015-10-11 17:40 (#Q5EY)

You should at least have said CDs/DVDs or other similar data-only media.
I did not do this on purpose. I 100% agree with all you said about thumb drives. The point was just that to isolate a system the external storage type is not really relevant. For me an isolated system is a system, which is not connected to any network. Ok, perhaps to a well defined local network with no connection outside this local network. The horrible security of thumb drives is a different problem. And... I would not even raise a brow when they just have said that thumb drives are an absolute no-no, on the contrary.

I was looking for the capacity of punch tapes, but only found 'a few dozen kilobytes'. The first 8" floppies also had only a 'few dozen kilobytes. But more interestingly:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punched_tape#Current_use
Use of punched tape today is very rare and is used only in military systems.
Unfortunately "citation needed"... but it looks like I wasn't that far off with my 'punch tape joke' :-D

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2015-10-12 19:14 (#Q8WJ)

I don't want any life-critical systems to depend on proper and careful handling a fiddly roll of paper tape.
Two words: mylar tape

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 1)

by evilviper@pipedot.org on 2015-10-12 22:23 (#Q9BD)

Mylar seems strong, until it gets nicked... One tiny little puncture, and the tear will propagate wildly, basically shredding.

Even if you eliminated material strength concerns, it's still a huge step backwards. Hard to believe someone found some way to make 8" floppies sound like a technically superior and more convenient option...

Re: Floppy disks more secure? (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2017-02-23 18:02 (#2DPYH)

I'm not sure about EMPs, but anything with larger bits might be better able to resist cosmic rays. OTOH, it may just provide more area for them to hit.

Flop-in replacement HW (Score: 1)

by lmariachi@pipedot.org on 2015-10-12 08:44 (#Q72H)

I’m a little surprised no one has come up with drop-in replacements that look to their hosts exactly like floppy drives but use a more modern storage medium. It’s unprofitable to ramp up mass production of old floppy disks, but I could see a cottage industry being able to form in replacement hardware. I mean, the 3.5” drives in the old CNC machines in the shop I used to work were probably the same drives you’d find in any PC, right? (I know things were less standardized before 3.5", but still a limited number of formats and mechanisms.)