TitleIts a pleasure to be here and I'm grateful to the organizers for inviting me to talk today. As usual, you don't need to take notes or ask for the slides, the text of the talk with links to the sources will go up on my blog shortly.
Thanks to funding from the Mellon Foundation I spent last summer on behalf of the Mellon and Sloan Foundations, and IMLS researching and writing a report entitled Emulation & Virtualization as Preservation Strategies. Jeff Rothenberg's 1995 Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents identified emulation and migration as the two possible techniques and came down strongly in favor of emulation. Despite this, migration has been overwhelmingly favored until recently. What has changed is that emulation frameworks have been developed that present emulations as a normal part of the Web.
Last month there was a follow-up meeting at the Mellon Foundation. In preparing for it, I realized that there was an important point that the report identified but didn't really explain properly. I'm going to try to give a better explanation today, because it is about how emulations of preserved software appear on the web, and thus how they can be become part of the Web that we collect, preserve and disseminate. I'll start by describing how the three emulation frameworks I studied appear on the Web, then illustrating the point with an analogy, and suggesting how it might be addressed.
When I gave a talk about the report at CNI I included live demos. It was a disaster; Olive was the only framework that worked via hotel WiFi. I have pre-recorded the demos using Kazam and a Chromium browser on my Ubuntu 14.04 system.
Theresa Duncan's CD-ROMs
|The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs.
What Is Going On?What happened when I clicked Smarty's Play button?
- The browser connects to a session manager in Amazon's cloud, which notices that this is a new session.
- Normally it would authenticate the user, but because this CD-ROM emulation is open access it doesn't need to.
- It assigns one of its pool of running Amazon instances to run the session's emulator. Each instance can run a limited number of emulators. If no instance is available when the request comes in it can take up to 90 seconds to start another.
- It starts the emulation on the assigned instance, supplying metadata telling the emulator what to run.
- The emulator starts. After a short delay the user sees the Mac boot sequence, and then the CD-ROM starts running.
- At intervals, the emulator sends the session manager a keep-alive signal. Emulators that haven't sent one in 30 seconds are presumed dead, and their resources are reclaimed to avoid paying the cloud provider for unused resources.
- Data I/O, connecting the emulator to data sources such as disk images, user files, an emulated network containing other emulators, and the Internet.
- Interactive Access, connecting the emulator to the user using standard HTML5 facilities.
- Control, providing a Web Services interface that bwFLA's resource management can use to control the emulator.
bwFLA's preserved system images are stored as a stack of overlays in QEMU's "qcow2'' format. Each overlay on top of the base system image represents a set of writes to the underlying image. For example, the base system image might be the result of an initial install of Windows 95, and the next overlay up might be the result of installing Word Perfect into the base system. Or the next overlay up might be the result of redaction. Each overlay contains only those disk blocks that differ from the stack of overlays below it. The stack of overlays is exposed to the emulator as if it were a normal file system via FUSE.
The technical metadata that encapsulates the system disk image is described in a paper presented to the iPres conference in November 2015, using the example of emulating CD-ROMs. Broadly, it falls into two parts, describing the software and hardware environments needed by the CD-ROM in XML. The XML refers to the software image components via the Handle system, providing a location-independent link to access them.
|TurboTax97 on Windows 3.1
What Is Going On?The top and bottom menu bars come from a program called VMNetX that is running on my system. Chromium invoked it via a MIME-type binding, and VMNetX then created a suitable environment in which it could invoke the emulator that is running Windows 3.1, and TurboTax. The menu bars include buttons to power-off the emulated system, control its settings, grab the screen, and control the assignment of the keyboard and mouse to the emulated system.
The interesting question is "where is the Windows 3.1 system disk with TurboTax installed on it?"
This system is Olive, developed at Carnegie Mellon University by a team under my friend Prof. Mahadev Satyanarayanan, and released under GPLv2. VMNetX uses a sophisticated two-level caching scheme to provide good emulated performance even over slow Internet connections. A "pristine cache" contains copies of unmodified disk blocks from the "system disk". When a program writes to disk, the data is captured in a "modified cache". When the program reads a disk block, it is delivered from the modified cache, the pristine cache or the Web server, in that order. One reason this works well is that successive emulations of the same preserved system image are very similar, so pre-fetching blocks into the pristine cache is effective in producing YouTube-like performance over 4G cellular networks.
|VisiCalc on Apple ][
EmularityThis is the framework underlying the Internet Archive's software library, which currently holds nearly 36,000 items, including more than 7,300 for MS-DOS, 3,600 for Apple, 2,900 console games and 600 arcade games. Some can be downloaded, but most can only be streamed.
The oldest is an emulation of a PDP-1 with a DEC 30 display running the Space War game from 1962, more than half a century ago. As I can testify having played this and similar games on Cambridge University’s PDP-7 with a DEC 340 display seven years later, this emulation works well
The quality of the others is mixed. Resources for QA and fixing problems are limited; with a collection this size problems are to be expected. Jason Scott crowd-sources most of the QA; his method is to see if the software boots up and if so, put it up and wait to see whether visitors who remember it post comments identifying problems, or whether the copyright owner objects. The most common problem is the sound.
|ACM landing page
The fact that it is very difficult for a crawler to find this link makes it hard for archives to collect and preserve scholarly papers. Herbert Van de Sompel and Michael Nelson's Signposting proposal addresses this problem, as to some extent do W3C activities called Packaging on the Web and Portable Web Publications for the Open Web Platform.
Problem Solved? NO!No it isn't. We have a problem that is analogous to, but much worse than, the landing page problem. The analogy would be that, instead of a link on the landing page leading to the PDF, embedded in the page was a link to a rendering service. The metadata indicating that the actual resource was a PDF, and the URI giving its location, would be completely invisible to the user's browser or a Web crawler. At best all that could be collected and preserved would be a screenshot.
All three frameworks I have shown have this problem. The underlying emulation service, the analogy of the PDF rendering service, can access the system image and the necessary metadata, but nothing else can. Humans can read a screenshot of a PDF document, a screenshot of an emulation is useless. Wrapping a system image in an emulation like this makes it accessible in the present, not preservable for the future.
If we are using emulation as a preservation strategy, shouldn't we be doing it in a way that is itself able to be preserved?
A MimeType for Emulations?What we need is a MimeType definition that allows browsers to follow a link to a preserved system image and construct an appropriate emulation for it in whatever way suits them. This would allow Web archives to collect preserved system images and later provide access to them.
The linked-to object that the browser obtains needs to describe the hardware that should be emulated. Part of that description must be the contents of the disks attached to the system. So we need two MimeTypes:
- A metadata MimeType, say Emulation/MachineSpec, that describes the architecture and configuration of the hardware, which links to one or more resources of:
- A disk image MimeType, say DiskImage/qcow2, with the contents of each of the disks.
I suggest DiskImage/qcow2 because QEMU's qcow2 format is a de facto standard for representing the bits of a preserved system's disk image.
And binding to "emul.js"Then, just as with pdf.js, the browser needs a binding to a suitable "emul.js" which knows, in this browser's environment, how to instantiate a suitable emulator for the specified machine configuration and link it to the disk images.This would solve both problems:
- The emulated system image would not be wrapped in a specific emulator; the browser would be free to choose appropriate, up-to-date emulation technology.
- The emulated system image and the necessary metadata would be discoverable and preservable because there would be explicit links to them.