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Digital Storage

By Steve Jones, Early in my career, I worked as a manager of a nightclub for a few years. This was similar to many other businesses in that we generated lots of paper, invoices, receipts, rolls of tape and more, that were the records of our business. And we had to store them, like many other businesses, using filing cabinets and storage boxes. Later I worked for an importer that had, literally, a hundred years of records stored in various locations, including a large storage unit that had boxes piled up to the ceiling.

As we moved to digital records, the amount of paper we generated dropped and the amount we needed to store dropped dramatically. As we outgrew captive disk, we moved to an HSM system with rewriteable optical discs and a jukebox, which brought other problems.

Apparently we aren't much different from the film industry, which is strugling with digital storage for the items it produces. A long time ago film could be stored in old salt mines, just squirrelled away in a relatively stable environment and easily retrieved alter on. The digital world changes that.

We deal in data.

My world, both as a DBA and now a writer/editor, involves lots of data and the information is represents. I have millions of bytes of information that holds value for me and which I would like to keep around for the foreseeable future. Whether it's these editorials, articles and writings, or even photographs, I hope that my grandkids and great-grandkids have the opportunity to consume these materials if they so desire.

However if I had built my data with a SQL Server 6.5 database, and my server died, then I'd be somewhat stuck now. I don't even know where I could get a copy of the software to decode my data files. And the same issue will happen soon with a huge amount of SQL Server 7 and 2000 databases. It won't be too long before finding copies of that software will be very problematic.

Digital data preservation brings new problems to the world beyond just saving the bits; we also have the issues of programs to interpret the data. Just like there are dead languages that we cannot understand, there are more and more dead programs and formats that cause us to lose information on a regular basis.

It's a complex problem, and one that I honestly think the governments of the world should address. They should require a set of standard formats: pick something ASCII or Unicode for text, TIFF for images, something else for audio, MP4 for video, and whatever other major types of data we need to save. And maybe legal requirements for archiving should require copies of software to be stored with the data? I certainly wish Microsoft and other companies were required to keep around copies of their old software in case someone needs it.

There doesn't appear to be any good answer. I did find some good papers, like this one that address the problem, but no one appears to have any great ideas.

Maybe we should just print out the 1s and 0s and archive those, perhaps as microfilm. We're certainly good at that :)

Steve Jones

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Steve Jones