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How long is long-term storage?

A group of concerned vendors and academic advisers have formed the 100 Year Archive Task Force. Here's why you should care.

There is a big disconnect between how long people think they should be storing data and how long they actual can. One group of vendors and academics is trying to change that.

Two years ago, the Storage Networking Industry Association's Data Management Forum reported the results of a landmark study that looked at the state of long-term storage, i.e. preserving a digital object for more than 10 years. Some disturbing results jumped out.

The study suggested that we live in a digital version of the Dark Ages. I'm talking about it now because I think the messages from the study are still very relevant to both IT administrators and consumers.

A whopping 80 percent of the 276 organizations included in the study reported a need to retain electronic records for more than 50 years, so let's start there. How many of you storage administrators out there actually think you can do 50 years of electronic records retention given current technology? Without data loss? OK, so you won't be doing the same job 50 years from now, so why care? Next question: How many of you think that you can do more than three migrations of archival data from one storage media to the next without data loss? According to the study, the answer was very few of you.

Here's one for consumers: How many of you using Internet photo services sites think that your digitized images will still be there 50 years from now? You haven't thought about that, right? You and your spouse take pictures of the newborn today, you store them online, and maybe you store them at home, too. Here's a suggestion: make sure to print them and preserve the prints for as long as you can because if the enterprise-level storage administrators who have been doing digital storage for decades have little confidence in their ability to do long-term digital preservation, you shouldn't have much confidence either.

So there's a big gap here. A group of concerned vendors and academic advisers have formed the 100 Year Archive Task Force under the auspices of the Storage Networking Industry Association's Data Management Forum wants to start filling the gap. You can follow their progress or become involved yourself here.

One more result from the study still has me puzzled. Slightly more than half of the 276 organizations surveyed reported the need for "permanent" storage. What might fall into the permanent category? I thought of the Founding Fathers writing the U.S. Constitution and wondered what that process would have been like if they were all using a collaborative work-flow tool like Microsoft SharePoint. For sure, they'd print out the final version for all to see--on parchment maybe? But what about all the draft versions and messaging back and forth--in short, all the supporting documentation that clue us in on their state of mind and tell us what they really intended? Would they have printed out all of that, too? I dare say that insight would be gone forever.

We rarely, if ever, think of saving our digitized thoughts for the sake of posterity. But for the sake of historians, lawmakers, sociologists, and scientists yet to be born, we should--or people centuries from now might look back on this as the digital version of the Dark Age centuries from now.