Best Practices: The ultimate archiving challenge


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An archiving deployment requires long-term retention management while avoiding vendor lock-in.

A data management paradox exists today that, if unresolved, portends serious consequences long into the future. We have more information available to us than ever before. If you fast forward 50 years or 100 years, how much of this information will be accessible and in usable form? Given current data management practices--in terms of both physical storage and logical data representation--it's questionable whether electronic information created and stored today will be usable even 10 years or 15 years from now.

This stands in stark contrast to all previous periods in human existence when data was recorded in visual form with symbols like cave drawings, cuneiforms and hieroglyphics, to modern alphabets. While all data representations involve some degree of decoding and interpretation, the extent required with electronic information is such that it can be rendered entirely meaningless without the one or more layers of meta data that are often completely dissociated with the body of the data. A string of ones and zeros can be interpreted to mean anything (or nothing), and requires an external interpreter to decode it whether it represents a jpeg image, a Word doc or a database table.

This doesn't even touch upon the other challenges of long-term data retention and preservation. Think back just 20 years and consider how

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you would provide legal assurance that a document originally stored on a 5.25-inch DOS floppy disk using WordStar on an Intel 286 PC is the "same" as one that has been repeatedly transferred, updated and now exists as a Microsoft Word 2007 file in a SAN viewed on a Windows Vista laptop. And that's a relatively trivial example!

Beyond the concerns of historians and archivists, why should we care? By the time this problem surfaces within our organizations, many of us probably expect to have moved on to bigger and better things (such as retirement). And because nearly all organizations face some data-retention challenge, it's tempting to assume a wait-and-see attitude. However, the steps we take now will greatly affect the magnitude of the problem facing us (or our successors) in the future.

This was first published in July 2007

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