Data storage


in Daily updates, Films and movies, Geek stuff, Ottawa

SAW Gallery, Ottawa

This evening, I was at an art gallery watching 8mm, Super 8, and 16mm films shot 25-40 years ago. Most of them were not in pristine quality, but still quite viewable. Afterwards, I got into a conversation with someone who works in archival film storage for the federal government. Contemporary society is generating far more data than ever before. At the same time, virtually nothing is stored at archival quality. An 8mm video or a 35mm negative will be fine in forty years if stored at controlled temperature and humidity. Even dumped in a box in someone’s attic, it is still likely to be comprehensible. The same is not true for how we store data today.

Basically, you have optical and magnetic storage. Optical includes CDs and DVDs, and is further divided between mass releases CDs (which are pressed into metal) and personally made CDs (which rely on dyes exposed to lasers). Neither is really archival. It is quite possible that your store-bought DVD will not work in twenty years. It is quite likely that your home-burned DVD will not work in five.

In terms of magnetic storage, you have tapes and hard drives. Many companies have learned to their detriment that poorly stored magnetic backup tapes can be useless. As for hard drives, they are vulnerable to physical breakdown, viruses, exposure to magnetic fields, corrosion, and other factors.

While is is likely that the products of my early fumblings with Ilford Delta 400 in high school will be intelligible in forty years, it is a lot less likely that my digital photos from Paris will be. That’s ironic, of course, given that the first ones can only be copied imperfectly and at a notable expense, while the latter can be copied perfectly for a few cents a gigabyte.

While some information exists in the form of so many copies that is will likely never be lost (ten thousand unsold copies of Waterworld on laserdisc), there is reason to fear that personal data being stored in the present era will likely be lost before people born today have grandchildren. While that has certainly been the norm for generations past – who would be lucky to have their lives recorded as a birth in a parish register, a marriage, and a death – it seems rather a shame given how cheap and ubiquitous data creation and storage has become.

[Update: 11 August 2010] I forgot to mention it earlier, but one potentially robust way to back up digital files is to print them on paper.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty August 11, 2007 at 10:57 pm

The Permanence of Parchment

When I watch documentaries about archaeology (which is often) I wonder what archaeological evidence our culture is going to leave behind. What will remain of our civilization in a thousand years, or three thousand years? The pyramids will undoubtedly still be here, and very likely the Acropolis, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, and countless other structures and artifacts made of stone and perhaps pottery, if conditions are right. But what of our buildings and artworks? Wood burns, steel rusts, pigments fade, and plastic (eventually) disintegrates. Concrete is the only durable material we regularly build with, but even it will fall apart if exposed to the weather, and the way we use it certainly won’t give a favourable impression of our aesthetic values.

Litty August 11, 2007 at 11:02 pm
Ben August 12, 2007 at 6:03 am

I thought when they introduced CDs and DVDs they sold us this new technology based on how much more durable it was…

Milan August 12, 2007 at 11:39 am

More information on CD and DVD longevity:

“Longevity is normally not determined by aging effects, although manufacturers quote studies that predict lifetimes of 20, 50, or even 100 years. Instead, longevity is usually limited by the cumulative effects of small scratches and contaminants that are introduced through normal handling and use. Do not tempt fate by assuming that your discs are bulletproof and can withstand abuse. CD-ROM and CD-R longevity can only be achieved by starting with a high quality disc and by exercising care in handling and storage.”

” Recently, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) looked at CDs and DVDs to see how long digital information recorded on to them would survive. They concluded that most CDs and DVDs will last 30 years or more if handled with care, but many factors can slash their longevity. Direct exposure to sunlight can do a great deal of damage both from the sun’s ultraviolet rays and the heat. Indeed, any rapid significant change in temperature or humidity can stress the materials. Discs last longest when stored in plastic cases in a cool, dark, dry environment. Because gravity can gradually bend the disc, storing it upright like a book is best for long-term storage. The study also found that fingerprints and smudges frequently do more damage than scratches, and recommends handling discs by the outer edge or the center hole.”

Milan August 12, 2007 at 11:46 am
tris August 12, 2007 at 11:19 pm

What is really odd is a society which values permanent endurance as the highest form of truth, and which has perfected infinite reproducibility, is worse at data storage than the Greeks.

Milan August 13, 2007 at 1:40 am


Everything ever read by more than 50 people in Greek society would probably fit onto one CD. We may keep less as a percentage of the total stock of data, but the latter has been growing at an absurd rate. Just think of a million digital SLRs shooting RAW images…

Beth August 13, 2007 at 6:42 am

Mempile is creating a 1TB optical disc which will store any information for over 100 years. It should be in the market in about 2-3 years and is aimed at exactly meeting the need you have described — replacing your grandmother’s shoe box and merging all the digitial islands in your home into one personal archive.

. May 26, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Nanotech Memory Could Hold Data For 1 Billion Years

“Digital storage devices have become ubiquitous in our lives but the move to digital storage has raised concerns about the lifetime of the storage media. Now Alex Zettl and his group at the University of California, Berkeley report that they have developed an experimental memory device consisting of a crystalline iron nanoparticle enclosed in a multiwalled carbon nanotube that could have a storage capacity as high as 1 terabyte per square inch and temperature-stability in excess of one billion years. The nanoparticle can be moved through the nanotube by applying a low voltage, writing the device to a binary state represented by the position of the nanoparticle. The state of the device can then be subsequently read by a simple resistance measurement while reversing the nanoparticle’s motion allows a memory ‘bit’ to be rewritten. This creates a programmable memory system that, like a silicon chip, can record digital information and play it back using conventional computer hardware storing data at a high density with a very long lifetime. Details of the process are available at the American Chemical Society for $30.”

. July 23, 2009 at 5:44 pm

New DVDs For 1,000-Year Digital Storage

A Utah statup is is about to introduce technology for writing DVDs that can be read for 1,000 years after being stored at room temperature. (Ordinary DVDs last anywhere from 3 to 12 years, on average.) The company, Millenniata, is said to be in the final stages of negotiation with Phillips over patent licensing and plans to begin manufacture in September. 1,000-year “M-ARC Discs” are expected to retail for $25-$30 at first, with the price coming down with volume.

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