Digital Archives Workstation Update: KryoFlux, FRED, and BitCurator Walk into a Bar…

The Manuscripts Division processing team’s new digital archives workstation.

Over the past year and a half, the Manuscripts Division processing team has made two significant additions to our digital archives workstation. The first, mentioned briefly in our July 2016 post, was a KryoFlux forensic floppy controller, which allows archivists to create disk images from a variety of obsolete floppy disk formats. The second, more recent addition was a forensic computer workstation called the Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device (FRED), which arrived this May (1). We now use the FRED in a native BitCurator environment as our primary workstation, along with the KryoFlux and a growing collection of external drives. While this streamlined setup has vastly improved our born-digital processing workflow, we would be lying if we didn’t admit that getting to this point has involved back-and-forth discussions with IT colleagues, FRED troubleshooting, and a fair share of headaches along the way. This post will describe how we got these new tools, FRED and KryoFlux, to work together in BitCurator.

Before we had the FRED, we operated the KryoFlux from the Windows partition of our digital processing laptop (which is partitioned to dual boot Bitcurator/Ubuntu Linux and Windows 7). To get to this point, however, we had to jump over some hurdles, including confusion over the orientation of drives on our data cable, which differed from the diagram in the official KryoFlux manual; finicky USB ports on our laptop; and the fact that the laptop didn’t seem to remember that it had the KryoFlux drivers installed between uses (2). While operating the KryoFlux meant we had to do some sort of extra finagling with each use, it nonetheless allowed us to image floppies we couldn’t with our previous tools.

In addition to hardware components such as the controller board, floppy drive, and associated cables, the KryoFlux “package” also consists of a piece of software called DiskTool Console (DTC), which can be run directly in the terminal as a command line tool or through a more human-friendly graphical user interface (GUI). The KryoFlux software is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux. However, we initially went with a Windows install after hearing a few horror stories about failed attempts to use KryoFlux with Linux. Though operational, this set-up quickly became unsustainable due to the laptop’s tendency to crash when we switched over from disk imaging in Windows to complete later processing steps in BitCurator. Whenever this happened, we had to completely reinstall the BitCurator partition and start from scratch, sometimes losing our working files in the process. In addition to this problem was the issue of our quickly dwindling hard drive space. In order to sidestep this mess, we needed to install the KryoFlux on the FRED. Since we planned to have the FRED running the BitCurator environment as its only operating system to avoid any future partitioning issues, this meant we would have to attempt the dreaded Linux install.

Our feelings about Linux before the Archivist’s Guide to KryoFlux. Source: http://gph.is/1c55ovc

Luckily, the arrival of our FRED in May 2017 coincided with the advent of the Archivist’s Guide to KryoFlux. Although the KryoFlux is gaining popularity with archivists, it was originally marketed towards tech-savvy computer enthusiasts and gamers with a predilection for vintage video games. The documentation that came with it was, to put it nicely, lacking. That’s where an awesome group of archivists, spearheaded by Dorothy Waugh (Emory), Shira Peltzman (UCLA), Alice Prael (Yale), Jennifer Allen (UT Austin), and Matthew Farrell (Duke) stepped in. They compiled the first draft (3) of the Archivist’s Guide to KryoFlux, a collaborative, user-friendly manual intended to address the need for clearer documentation written by archivists for archivists. Thanks to the confidence inspired by this guide, our dark days of Linux-fearing were over. We did encounter some additional hiccups on our way to a successful Linux install on the FRED — but nothing we couldn’t handle without the tips and tricks found in the guide. The following are some words of wisdom we would offer to other archivists who want to use KryoFlux in conjunction with the FRED and/or in a natively installed BitCurator environment.

First, when installing KryoFlux on a Linux machine, there are a few extra steps you need to take to ensure that the software will run smoothly. These include installing dependencies (libusb and the JDK Java Runtime Platform) and creating a udev rule that will prevent future permissions issues. If the previous sentence is meaningless to you, that’s ok because the Archivist’s Guide to KryoFlux explains exactly how to do both of these steps here.

A second problem we ran into was that, even though we had Java installed, our computer wasn’t invoking Java correctly when we launched the KryoFlux GUI; the GUI would appear to open, but important functionality would be missing (such as a completely blank settings window). A tip for bypassing this problem can be found several paragraphs into the README.linux file that comes with the KryoFlux software download; these instructions indicate that the command java -jar kryoflux_ui.jar makes Java available when running the GUI. To avoid having to run this command in the terminal every single time we use the GUI, we dropped the command into a very short bash script. We keep this script on the FRED’s desktop and click on it in order to start up the GUI in place of a desktop icon. There are likely other solutions to this problem out there, but this the first one that worked consistently for us.

Annotated section of README.linux file from the KryoFlux software for Linux (which you can download from this page.)

One particularity of the FRED to keep in mind when working with the KryoFlux, or any external floppy controller or drive, is the FRED’s internal Tableau write blocker (UltraBay). Since the KryoFlux employs hardware write-blocking (after you remove a certain jumper block (4) ), the FRED’s internal hardware write blocker is unnecessary and will create problems when interfacing with external floppy drives. To bypass the FRED’s Tableau write blocker, make sure to plug the KryoFlux USB data cable into one of the USB ports along the very top of the FRED or those on the back, not the port in the UltraBay.

Plug the KryoFlux data cable into the USB ports that are not connected to the internal write blocker in the FRED’s UltraBay. Like so.

Technical woes aside, the best part about our new FRED/KryoFlux/BitCurator set-up is that it allows us to access data from floppy disks that were previously inaccessible due to damage and obscure formatting. Just this summer, our inaugural Manuscripts Division Archival Fellow, Kat Antonelli, used this workstation to successfully image additional disks from the Toni Morrison Papers. Kat was also able to use Dr. Gough Lui’s excellent six-part blog series on the KryoFlux to interpret some of the visualizations that the KryoFlux GUI provides. From these visualizations, she was able to glean that several of the disks that even the KryoFlux couldn’t image were most likely blank. While the Archivist’s Guide to KryoFlux provides a great way to get started with installation, disk imaging, and basic interpretation of the KryoFlux GUI’s various graphs, learning how to navigate these visualizations is still somewhat murky once you get beyond the basics. As archivists continue to gain experience working with the KryoFlux, it will be interesting to see how much of this visual information proves useful for archival workflows (and of course, we’ll document what we learn as we go!)

What does it all mean? (The left panel shows us how successful our disk image was. The right panel contains more detailed information about the pattern of data on the disk.)

(1) The processing team drafted a successful proposal to purchase the FRED based on the results of a survey we conducted asking 20 peer institutions about their digital archives workstations. We plan to publish the results of this survey in the near future. More to come on this project in a future post!

(2) You can read more about our troubleshooting process for these issues in the “Tale of Woe” we contributed to the Archivist’s Guide to KryoFlux. More on this resource later in this post.

(3) The guide is still in draft form and open for comments until November 1, 2017. The creators encourage feedback from other practitioners!

(4) See page 3 of the official KryoFlux manual for instructions on enabling the write blocker on the KryoFlux. (3.5” floppies can also be write-blocked mechanically.)

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