Keeping your digits from decay Featured

10:02am EDT July 22, 2002

storage technology come at the price of increased care for the media and periodic upgrading of the drives The Rosetta Stone, which unlocked the secrets of ancient languages, is still legible after 22 centuries. Gutenberg's first Bibles can still be read from the pages he printed more than 500 years ago. But the 1960 U.S. census had to be rescued from microfilm, because the magnetic tapes on which the cumulative data was stored had so degraded that most of the information was indecipherable.

As businesses move their records onto electronic storage media-disks, tapes and CD-ROMs, issues of information durability and retrieval arise that were absent or at least less problematic than with earlier storage systems. "In fact, the record of the entire present period of history is in jeopardy," writes RAND Corp. senior computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg in "Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Information," a paper for Scientific American magazine. "The content and historical value of many governmental, organizational, legal, financial and technical records, scientific databases and personal documents may be irretrievably lost to future generations if we do not take steps to preserve them."

To be sure, most business records need not last centuries, and digital storage media have become more reliable and economical over the last two decades. On the other hand, disasters natural or manmade may place such records seemingly beyond reach, as businesses hit by recent floods in Texas found out this summer. "If you're down, you could lose everything-not just the customers you have, but the businesses who depend on you," notes Mark V. Rosenker, vice president of public affairs at the Electronic Industries Alliance in Arlington, Va. Fortunately for many of these companies, data recovery specialists, such as those at EIA's risk management center (phone 800-300-3083), can often restore damaged electronic storage systems.

Short of catastrophic loss, however, electronic storage systems, because of their unique nature, have unique safety and maintenance requirements. Many are simple common sense. Don't place magnetic media, such as tapes and disks, near magnets, Rosenker cautions. Optimal storage temperature is 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, at 30 to 40 percent humidity. Avoid dust and moisture. Keep media in their original cases. Don't place them where something may crush them. Don't place heavy objects on top of them; where possible, stand tapes, disks and CD-ROMs on their ends on a shelf, like books. Avoid light that might heat them up and warp them.

"They are fairly durable," says Quan O. Logan, EIA manager of database operations. "Just don't do something stupid with them."

Properly maintained, most electronic storage media should last decades, even centuries, according to Koichi Sadashige, a consultant to National Media Lab in St. Paul, Minn. The bigger risk is obsolescence of the media format and hardware. Eight-inch floppy disks gave way to 5 1/4-inch floppies, which were superceded by 3 1/2-inch floppies. There are a half-dozen new mass storage drive and disk standards, from the popular 100-megabyte Zip drive by Iomega to 5-gigabyte disks by Syquest. Four- and eight-millimeter tapes may hold up to 125 gigabytes of ultra-compressed data, Logan notes, while CD-ROM "juke boxes" allow access to limitless combinations of 650-megabyte optical storage platters. And manufacturers are adding to the confusion every year, by introducing new storage drives and media.

The best insurance against obsolescence is to plan on transcribing your data onto a new, modern, popular format approximately every 10 years, Sadashige and others advise. As older formats decline in popularity, it will be harder to find parts for broken drives, or experts who can recover crucial information from old media.

"If your entire livelihood is based on this [data], you'd probably want to duplicate it onto a brand-new tape every few years," Rosenker says. "But if you just want to have it around, you should be able to depend on it for three to five years."