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Happy Ever After
Simon Sharwood 270005GK8T firstname.lastname@example.org | | Tags:  virtualisation business_intelligence_ana... analytics intelligence digital sharwood files business simon data archive storgage
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Every business knows that it really should create archives of its data, as a backup, to meet some compliances obligations and to preserve its intellectual property. But not many realise that creating a reliable and durable working archive is a tricky business.
To understand why, you need to remember the story of 1066 and all that, when William the Conqueror became King of England. 20 years into his reign William commissioned a Census of sorts and The Domesday Book listed its results.
Books haven't changed much since 1086, so even though The Domesday Book was written in archaic Latin and became a priceless historical artefact, its format was readable for 900 years. But in 1986, the BBC decided to create a new, digital, edition of the Domesday Book. The best technology of the day (laser disks) were pressed into service for a new digital edition.
But a few years later, compact disks superseded laser disks. Working laser disk players became hard to find and the computer for which the digital Domesday was created became an irrelevant relic. The considerable work that went into the Digital Domesday seemed wasted.
Clever people eventually found a way to restore the digital version of the Domesday Book so it would work with modern computers, but the incident highlights the fact that the formats we use to archive data can age very rapidly. There's no guarantee that data you create today will be accessible in five or ten years.
Another example of data's short life is in Perth where a company called Spectrum Data specialises in taking old computer tapes and converting the data into newer formats. The company combs the world for working tape drives from the seventies and sixties to meet demand from organisations that can no longer read their own data.
Among its clients is NASA, which famously lost the video recordings of the first moon landing. That loss highlights another thing about archives, namely that you need to keep track of the physical media you use very carefully.
When I share these stories with business, their reaction is often that they don't need to worry about their archives because they preserve data from their accounting applications for tax purposes.
But there's a bit more to worry about. Thanks to some unscrupulous businesses that tried to hide documents from the courts, laws around the world (and increasingly in Australia penalise businesses that are careless with their old data in case it becomes relevant to future legal action. Those laws make your old emails important archival material that you may have a responsibility to preserve.
Other businesses are waking up to the fact that their shift to digital media means data archives will be important.
Workers compensation insurers, for example, tell me that they need access to employees' complete work history, just in case a minor injury at one point of a career becomes something that generates a claim decades in the future. The healthcare industry is waking up to the fact that an x-ray taken of a child today may be needed by their doctor in eighty years time.
How can you respond? Clearly it is time to take archives seriously.
Happily there are now several efforts aimed at ensuring data remains readable for a very long time. The LTO tape standard has a long forward roadmap that should make sure it remains readable and has been engineered so tapes last decades. The PDF/A standard offers an archival format for documents. The sheer ubiquity of some formats mean they stand a good chance of surviving, too: humanity has collectively made so many .doc, .jpg and HTML files that we have a shared investment in those formats' survival. Modern archiving software is aware of these requirements and can help you to create an archive that will last.
But don't assume you can rely on ubiquity: the increasing reliance on accessibility of old data means it is a sensible time to seek expert help to define an archival strategy so you can understand what you need to do to get ready for requests for data that arrive in a year, a decade or even longer.