Do you own data, or does data own you?


Too… many… drives!

I tend to follow a similar familiar pattern of behaviour whenever I get a shiny new gadget or install a brand new operating system I've never used before that has a solid package manager.

  1. Get excited
  2. Check out available software
  3. Download and install ridiculous numbers of titles based on the loose criteria that "it looks interesting"
  4. Attempt to organise and maintain all the software
  5. After a few weeks I realise I didn’t use most of the software, start pruning back
  6. Rinse, lather, repeat

I'm reminded of what my grandfather on my mum's side back in Australia has always said about clutter and junk: if you haven't used something in a month, it's safe to assume you probably won't ever use it, and it's time to sell it or give it away. Like a Greek or Chinese philosopher he claims that the amount you paid for something should NOT be a factor in whether you cling to it, because clutter just isn't worth it.

I think the same can be said for computers. People tend to see clutter in a more physical sense, and I admit even as late as a few years ago admitting that the amount of data and applications you have on a machine doesn't matter because your computer doesn't physically grow in size or get heavier. It may sound silly, but I suspect more people think like this.
It's too tempting to install tons of free, quality software from pkgsrc!

ASIDE: The irony isn’t lost on me that I’ve taken this NetBSD pkgsrc screenshot on a Windows machine. I’m on my dad’s machine here while I fix his partition table. That didn’t sound right.

While I am a fan of Mac OS X, this is one of the things that really draws me to FreeBSD. Unlike OS X or Windows or the vast majority of GNU/Linux distributions, FreeBSD starts off clean, simple to understand and small, and you only add what you need.

I don't quite know how to describe it, but when I view the few hundred packages I have on a FreeBSD tower compared to the thousands that Ububtu or Fedora installs or the many applications OS X or Windows come with that I'd never use, I feel as though I'm using a far more elegant system. Of course the trade off is you have to invest a not so insignificant amount of time initially setting it up compared to Ubuntu or OS X, but the results are worth it!

ASIDE: I would have said Windows too, but I find the initial stages of installing, locking down and securing a fresh Windows install takes even longer! I’m serious, I have timed this!

The same clutter talk can also be applied to data. As I said before I used to assume data had an inexhaustible potential, for if I ran out of disk space, I could just add another drive! When you've had this attitude for your whole life and have piled up terabytes of crap, backups and general hardware maintenance end up taking up more time than what I suspect the data is worth.

I have [almost] never deleted any of my data, unless I was compressing (and checksumming) it using the latest and greatest algorithm; and while I've always been rather messy in my living environments (though seeing others I think I'm quite tame!) I have always been obsessively meticulous when it comes to sorting and organising my data. I have a complex directory structure that has evolved over the years but it's clean enough that I can find a book report I typed up in primary school without using any search system… if I really wanted to!

Container ship in the Straits of Singapore

Imagine if I printed everything I had on hard drives onto paper… sheesh!

The question is… Is it worth maintaining all this data and infrastructure? When should common sense kick in? Should I be performing the same kind of auditing on data as I tend to do with software on a regular basis?

I suspect this is a fairly open ended problem, and as with clutter in the real world some people are naturally better at not letting it accumulate than others. I still have my Pentium MMX 200MHz desktop running the latest version of FreeBSD and it still performs great. I guess you can tell the nature of my hoarding habits from that :)

As I've said on Google Reader, there is something alluring about buying a sturdy backpack that can hold a laptop, clothes and a teddy bear and living out of it as I spend my money travelling rather than buying more crap. I suspect I'll always need to have a storage room somewhere though… for my box of my late mum's handwriting and her paintings for example. And I'll always need a big arse external hard drive to store digital crap, even if I leave it in the same storage room.

I guess this post could have been summarised in two words: delete superfluous crap! Hey wait a minute.

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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