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The 100-Year Archive Dilemma

As more organizations store more data longer, the IT industry seeks a better way.

July 25, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A record is a record, whether it's a sheet of paper, an e-mail, an electronic document or a digital image.
"It's the content that drives retention, not the media it's written on," says Adam Jansen, a digital archivist for the state of Washington. And recent federal regulations are requiring more companies to save more content for longer periods of time.
While content may be king in theory, in practice, the media on which it's stored and the software that stores it present problems. As digital tapes and optical discs pile higher and higher in the cavernous rooms of off-site archive providers, businesses are finding them increasingly expensive to maintain.
The software that created the data has limited backward compatibility, so newer versions of a program may not be able to read data stored under older versions.
Moreover, the media on which the data is stored degrade relatively quickly. "Ten years is pushing it as far as media permanence goes," says Jansen.
Varied Approaches
Today, the only safe path to long-term archiving is repeated data migration from one medium and application to another throughout the data's life span, experts say.
But the storage industry is working on the problems from various angles.
One solution to the backward-compatibility problem is to convert data to common plain-text formats, such as ASCII or Unicode, which support all characters across all platforms, languages and programs. Using plain-text formats to store data enables virtually any software to read the files, but it can cause the loss of data structure and rich features such as graphics.
Another approach is to use PDF files to store long-term data. There can be backward-compatibility problems with PDFs, but the file format's developer, Adobe Systems Inc., has created an archival version of its software, called PDF/A, that addresses them.

Adam Jansen, digital archivist for the state of Washington
Adam Jansen, digital archivist for the state of Washington
Image Credit: Craig Sweat
To date, the most promising standard data-storage technologies are emerging in new XML-based formats, according to analysts and studies. XML is a file format and self-describing markup language that is independent of hardware and operating systems.
On the media side, the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) is working toward solving what it calls the "100-year archive dilemma" through a standards effort for media. The goal is to store data in a format that will always be readable by a generic reader.
"Degrading media is not at all the issue. Rather, the real issue is long-term readers and compatibility -- the logical problem which we intend to address," says Michael Peterson, president of Strategic Research Corp. in Santa Barbara, Calif., and program director for


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