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Functional Floppy Disks – in 2015

by Finn Espen Gundersen on September 27th, 2015

Update December 2015: This project has now ended and the floppy era is over – for me at least. The project has been featured quite a bit in the press and blogosphere. Most notably:

BBC World Service (14min12sek in)
CBC Spark
Norwegian National Broadcasting (NRK)
Dagbladet (national newspaper)

While mass production of the venerable floppy disk stopped about 2010, some are still needed for applications designed in the nineties. It is actually possible to work with floppy disks on an almost daily basis at work, in 2015. In fact, I do.

2500 floppies, or about 3.5 GB

2500 floppies, or about 3.5 GB

Norwegian doctors get one 3.5″ floppy in the mail from the government (the Norwegian Directorate of Health) every month. For a long time this applied to all of them, but for about the last decade a secure online option has been available. Problem is, a lot of doctors love their MSDOS-based electronic journals and haven’t switched yet.

The reason floppy disks are used instead of CD-ROMs or flash drives is partly historical and partly economical. The floppy disks are inexpensive; they cost far less than a USB drive and are far less time-consuming to write to than a CD-ROM for this amount of data. Given the historical restriction of delivery by mail, and the data volume being less than 1.44MB, they are the logical choice.

Background

Why a floppy a month? In Norway, every citizen selects one doctor to be their go-to doctor for everyday needs. This patient-to-main-doctor directory is maintained by the government. Since patients are free to switch (to any doctor with an available spot) at any time, the government needs to continuously send doctors a list of their main patients. This list, although essentially only a list of names, is classified as health-related information, leading to some restrictions on distribution.

1500 discs, about 2.1 GB. Nicely stacked before a visit from the national broadcasting company (NRK).

1500 disks, about 2.1 GB. Nicely stacked before a visit from the national broadcasting company (NRK).

At work, we took over the distribution from a large american document management company mid-2014, mostly for kicks. We all had fond memories of floppies growing up and it just seemed like a fun thing to do. Since then we have bought tens of thousands of floppies, emptying the stocks of most local online retailers. We are now buying them from the previous company holding the contract. When that stock is empty, or they refuse to sell us any more, we will start buying from floppydisk.com. It is what seems to be the sole global supplier with enough in stock.

Functional?

To make sure every floppy gets the correct file, and gets sent to the correct doctor, we developed two applications in Haskell. From the EBCDIC encoded files we receive every month, one application generates labels for envelopes and floppies. A barcode on each label and a barcode reader on every USB floppy reader makes sure everything matches up. The other Haskell application is the one reading the barcodes on the floppy labels and writing the correct file. Thus, the human operator (usually a temp or intern), doesn’t even have to touch the keyboard.

The floppy copy workstations are required by the contract to be airgapped (no network). Fitting, as surfing the web and copying floppies belongs to two entirely different eras.

A floppy copy workstation in 2015. The phone handset is just there for giggles.

A floppy copy workstation in 2015. The retro handset is just there for giggles.

So there it is, Haskell in production for the Norwegian government. Haskell truly can do anything.

Fun fact: while floppies are indestructible, the floppy readers are not. They seem to last a few thousand writes. Luckily, the drives are still readily available online.

The end is near

The government seems to finally close down floppy distribution at the beginning of 2016, forcing any remaining doctors over to newer electronic patient journals. The chosen strategy is just to offer paper printouts instead, requiring error-prone rekeying at the doctor’s office. The future may be here at last, entering via paper detour.

Art installation "Resistance to Change" in my office made from empty floppy containers.

Art installation “Resistance to Change” in my office made from empty floppy containers (about 12000 disks).

 

From → Haskell

46 Comments
  1. terminalcommand permalink

    Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.
    If it’s practical, why not use it.

    • xurious permalink

      IPoAC!

      Imagine that same station wagon full of nicely packed 512GB SD cards…

  2. Alec permalink

    Why don’t you have the doctors’ office format the floppies and send them back? They are rewritable. It would make you stock last longer.

    • Finn Espen Gundersen permalink

      We don’t have the authority to request that. Also, floppies are not that hard to find yet, so it would be more expensive.

      • Logan permalink

        Can you sell around 6000 – 8000 of floppies to me ?

  3. Frank permalink

    I haven’t seen a floppy disk in 16 years, unbelievable story! 🙂

    However there seems to be a trend of software ‘getting older’. The software I wrote 10 years ago had a life expectency of 2-3 years. Now days processor speeds don’t double every 1.5 years and people are just sattisfied with their office 2003 suite.

    At this very moment I’m working on a 13 year old .NET codebase for a large company. It works and it will keep working for the coming years.

    Software is becoming an ancient craf 🙂

  4. Aivar permalink

    I have somewhat a meta-question… As patients are free to switch, the information in principle gets outdated as soon as it is extracted from the government system, so whats the use of this information?

    Do doctors refuse to deal with patients not in their main list? Is it only about the number of available “slots” per doctor?

    Also, whats the average month-on-month turnover, eg how many changes per doctor and how many doctors with no change in list?

    P.S I DO hope the information on the floppy is somehow encrypted 😀

    • Toni Lähdekorpi permalink

      @Aivar
      Maybe it doesn’t need to be encrypted, it’s good enough that it’s on a floppy. Nobody can read those anymore anyways 😀

    • Finn Espen Gundersen permalink

      Patients seldomly switch so the turnover is very low. If you switch to a new one and visit before he gets the update, he will just call to confirm.

      • neoteny permalink

        If turnover is very low, then why is mostly unchanged info being sent out to thousands of doctors monthly? Why isn’t just the changed info being sent out?

      • Finn Espen Gundersen permalink

        There is nothing to gain by sending changes only. The floppy can hold it all. Sending everything also means every floppy is self-contained, after vacation just read the last one.

      • neoteny permalink

        Sure there is something to be gained: not sending out the majority of the floppies, i.e. all of those ones which contain unchanged data.

        There are approx. 4,500 GPs in Norway. If in a given month there are 500 GPs whose patient list changes (after all, “patients seldomly switch so the turnover is very low”), then it is unnecessary to send out the other 4,000 (~90%) floppies with the unchanged patient lists.

  5. john permalink

    Hard to believe this stupidity comes from the same country that produced Abel, Sophus Lie and Magnus Carlsen. I would start at the root of the problem and ditch socialized medicine. Free up everything.

    • Finn Espen Gundersen permalink

      A vast majority of the popluation in all scandinavian countries favour socialized medicine, it would be a tough sell to change that.

    • Region Sparks permalink

      Only America has enough freedom for ambulance bills and to bankrupt the sick.

      The rest of the world is quite happy as we are thanks.

    • digi_owl permalink

      It is a “market” approximation, introduced in recent years, that necessitate this.

      Earlier you just went to the doctor that was on call at the time.

      Now you instead pick a doctor you stick with, in part to give a competitive incentive to the other doctors to step up their service quality (the thinking is some kind of off-shot of New Public Management).

  6. Sebastian permalink

    Wow, sounds like where i work… Which, funnily enough, is also in the public sector 🙂 just, in another country… It’s nice to see that it must be similar… Even with the ebcdic.. lol wut?

  7. Ben permalink

    “far less time-consuming to write to than a CD-ROM.”

    LOL! Seriously? With a 48X burner, I bet that I could write AND VERIFY at least 4-5 discs before a floppy drive can fill a floppy disc. If you were using mini cd-r’s, they would be more robust, lighter, and cost less to ship.

    If some of the data is the same, you could burn hundreds of discs at a time with automated duplicators.

    What an epic waste of time and taxpayer money.

    • Finn Espen Gundersen permalink

      The data is all unique and the writes are 5-15 seconds depending on data size (i.e. number of patients). Even fast CD writers take some time spinning up and down as well as doing lead-in and lead-out.

      • digi_owl permalink

        Would this be the case even if one employed something like packet writing?

  8. Stein permalink

    Trust my doctor have a rainbow coloured floppy next time I visit him 🙂

  9. Ernesto permalink

    I find hard to believe that you can’t manage email attachments up to 1.44 Mb 😮

    • digi_owl permalink

      The problem is not the data, it is the software in use at the doctor end.

      It is DOS based, and thus likely don’t have the first clue about anything beyond A: B: C: drives.

      Also, to do this via email would require an encryption infrastructure.

      Physical mail instead employ sealed envelopes and signature/id on delivery.

      • Awesome Possum permalink

        The health authorities have had a PKI for communicating with doctors in place for at least a decade. I used to manage it back then. The doctors have (as you note) staunchly refused to update the software. Not so much because they love their MS DOS, but because they expect the government to foot the bill for upgrades.

  10. Kingflathead permalink

    Evil Overlord Rule #99: Any data file of crucial importance will be padded to 1.45Mb in size.

  11. I hear that 3.5″ flopped make excellent ice scrapers for car windscreens, a tool that’s also especially important in Norway…

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