August meetup: Emulation

Emulation is defined in the Digital Preservation Handbook as "a means of overcoming technological obsolescence of hardware and software by developing techniques for imitating obsolete systems on future generations of computers". 

The topic for the August monthly meetup started with a post on the Australasia Preserves Google Group seeking options for web-based viewers for born-digital materials other than images and AV, which are readily available with open source and commercial solutions. Viewing born-digital materials online becomes complicated when working with other file formats such as emails, Computer Aided Design, video games, or even older word processing formats. There is also the question on whether to provide access through a web browser or, as is the practice with some digital archives, provide a download in legacy formats for researchers to render in their own computing environment.

The session started with Euan Cochrane, Principal Investigator for EaaSI, introducing us to the Emulation-as-a-Service Infrastructure (EaaSI) program of work, making digital objects available in their original software in an emulated environment in a web browser. 

He spoke about their network of distributed nodes, each contributing to the service with pre-populated environments. He highlighted the importance of metadata, with work being undertaken to document file formats that programs can open, save and export. The project is contributing as much data as they can to Wikidata for Digital Preservation (User:YULdigitalpreservation), which Euan recommended as a useful resource. He discussed the Virtual Reading Room Service, with an API to automatically render objects in original software via emulation. The Universal Virtual Interactor (UVI) provides the ability to add a universal viewer, or interactor, with existing discovery and access platforms. He noted that future developments will focus on sustainability, networked environments, an Android emulator, automation, and new user interface functionality. 

Euan suggested ways to get involved, including trying out the EaaSI sandbox online, downloading and trying the demo docker-package, joining the Software Preservation Network and working to establish a legal basis for reuse of legacy proprietary software for preservation and access to digital heritage in Australasia.

We then heard from Melanie Swalwell, Professor of Digital Media Heritage at Swinburne University, who discussed the Play It Again and Archiving Australian Media Arts (AAMA) projects. 

Swalwell highlighted their use of Emulation as a Service (EaaS) and Dr Cynde Moya's experience on how emulators can have issues with timing and aspect ratios, leading to serious rendering problems. Side by side comparisons can be found on the Play It Again Vimeo channel. Swalwell highlighted the urgency of testing emulation while there is still access to the original hardware to compare how they should look and behave, with the Digital Heritage Lab in the process of being set up at Swinburne University. She discussed how games and media arts come together with these projects, utilising skills from both areas, and that emulation has potential to make complex digital artworks accessible once more. 

The AAMA project is working with collections from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia Centre for the Moving Image, Griffith University Art Museum and the State Library of South Australia. Swalwell highlighted the distributed national collection of media arts in Australia and the challenge in bringing them together in some way where collections become national in scale, contextualised with artefacts held elsewhere. She argued the need for an Australian EaaSI network to enable sharing of environments and access to artefacts elsewhere, noting that she is spearheading a bid for funding and encouraged anyone interested in being involved to get in touch.

Tim Mifsud, National Archives of Australia (NAA), discussed emulation as a digital archiving strategy. He noted that the NAA has legal obligations to provide access to digital files that cannot be accessed in current computer environments due to obsolete formats and complex/dynamic digital objects. 

Mifsud wrote an internal discussion paper that identified EaaSI and he attended a workshop in Dublin earlier this year to investigate. He tested a local copy of EaaSI on his own computer and provided an internal demo on its functionality. He noted that he tested on non-collection items as a quick way to test it out. Mifsud bravely provided a live demo, running e-Tax 99 within a Windows 98 environment. There is no way to run the program without an emulated environment, and it is a significant item demonstrating the first time the Government switched over to an electronic form of submitting tax returns. He noted that the purpose of the project was to investigate options for establishing a standalone instance to test on collection items, where there are a number of use cases for emulation at the NAA. Mifsud highlighted that emulation will help with enabling effective description, control and management of software and legacy collections. 

Lastly we heard from Gareth Kay who provided an overview of the hardware and software library at National Library of Australia. He noted that the collection started informally in 2006 and currently contains over 3,600 catalogued items, with 1,695 software applications going back to 1980. The collection contains software, computers, periphery and books/user manuals. 

Kay described the NLA disk imaging project utilising DD (command line), CatWeasel MK4 and IMGburn with the majority imaged by 2017 in ISO or IMG format. He highlighted their file format and software mapping project, a knowledge base looking at the functional relationships between file formats and software (NLA Software and File Formats Knowledge Base 2014; Backing up digital preservation practice with empirical research: the National Library of Australia’s Digital Preservation Knowledge Base 2017). Kay discussed trying to get information out of a document from an earlier version of Microsoft Word and successfully installing two versions onto the same computer, where common libraries created interference between the two. This led him to virtualisation through VMware, building dedicated Windows environments with snapshots containing different versions of software. He discussed the use of virtual machines to do everyday digital preservation work - helping with analysis of digital collections through identification of files not identified or misidentified by DROID, investigate rendering issues, and offline carrier processing. Kay noted that the NLA is now in a great position to implement emulation solutions with a large software and library and experience with older software and operating systems, but that they still need to look at the legality of emulation or sharing software.

Throughout discussions, the legal aspect of emulation was highlighted as a priority for the Australasian region, with the technology side well underway. Participants were keen to connect and discuss this further. Anyone interested in continuing discussions should join the Google Group.

Questions from participants included:

  • For EaaSI: How do you plan to handle subscription based software like Adobe and Microsoft Office?
  • For EaaSI: Do you see the possibility of accessing a PREMIS METS file and extracting software dependencies to create emulation environments on the fly?
  • How can we as collecting institutions ensure that we are capturing and securing the artistic/author intent as we emulate/migrate/normalise objects as part of ongoing digital preservation practices?
  • How do you know what (minor) version of software to capture when the major version can have many significant updates over its lifetime.  The functionality of a minor can still be quite different - including bug fixes.  Same goes for operating systems
  • For NAA: What is your organisation's approach to the legal issues around emulating propriety software in the Australian legal context?
  • Are these problems, eg detecting which bits of software are missing, research challenges that could be thrown at computer scientists?


Resources and recording

Many great links to resources and other information were shared in the chat, including:

The presenters have kindly offered a copy of their slides for download:

And finally, you can view the recording of the meetup on the Australasia Preserves YouTube channel: 

Cover image credit: Matthew Burgess / State Library of New South Wales

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