Five worthy reads is a regular column on five noteworthy items we’ve discovered while researching trending and timeless topics. This week, to mark the upcoming World Backup Day, we explore the concepts of data decay and the digital dark age.
Data is often equated with oil and gold because of how valuable it can be.
On the personal front, it comprises anything from digital copies of official documentation to precious memories. On the organizational front, it could comprise of proprietary findings, patents or breakthroughs, customer data… and the list goes on.
Have your backups truly got your back?
Naturally, those of us who are aware of how vulnerable this information could be take precautions. We upload our personal data to cloud storage services, write it to CDs (or at least we used to), copy it onto external hard disks, and more.
At work, we carry out regular backups as part of our disaster recovery plans (in case you aren’t, here are six reasons why you should). We may even be following the 3-2-1 rule.
However, is this alone enough?
Think back to the good old floppy disk from the 90s. Once a reliable mode of data storage, floppy disks are now anachronisms that simply serve as quirky coasters—at least in the case of my father. Then there is the question of older software that’s fallen out of use along the way. These applications often used proprietary file formats and the death of the software has possibly rendered all such files unreadable. In the world of business, legacy apps, whether third-party or custom-built, could pose similar issues.
Fast-forward to the internet age and things aren’t much better. In 2018, Flickr moved to discontinue its free terabyte of storage. Those who were over the limit and didn’t want to pay the premium would soon have their oldest photos deleted. On the business front, there’s the case of data loss due to service outages or other errors. While our cloud storage systems are possibly more robust than before, this doesn’t make them completely decay-proof.
These types of data losses could lead to what archivists term as the digital dark age. This is a period where vast amounts of data that we create are lost. It could be due to failing storage devices, bit rot, file formats no longer being supported, websites and servers shutting down, and more.
Some say the digital dark ages have already begun. Looking back at all the data lost via downed websites and outdated storage and file formats, it’s hard not to agree.
Avoiding a digital dark age—or why and how to back up data more effectively
Without further ado, let’s get into the meat of the matter. The five articles shared below discuss data decay and the digital dark age in more detail. You’ll find answers to what they are, how they may affect your business (and your personal data), and possible ways to counter them.
Data, once thought to be deathless, has been found to be otherwise. From mundane stuff like old forum posts to pieces of investigative journalism, nothing is safe from the decay induced, ironically, by the progress and growth of the data age. If we don’t act today, future generations may only get access to a fraction of the information we create.
Some industries rapidly transform, with older technologies getting replaced by newer ones. Some move forward sluggishly, overly reliant on legacy apps and systems before being dragged to newer technologies. Between all this change, the question arises: Can organizations in these industries still access their older files? Ideally the answer should be yes. However, if organizations don’t keep compatibility between older and newer systems in mind, older data could become unreadable.
As data storage mediums get denser and denser, the data stored on them becomes more prone to corruption. One way of preserving them is to make regular backups. However, mere copy-pasting isn’t enough. We need to take care to keep updating files to newer formats lest they become unreadable. For more important files, we may need to consider also making copies on analog media, in addition to our digital backups. Tapes are an option, as discussed in the article below. Print is another as per the author of this article on the data dark age.
In a surprising twist of fate, the “dead” medium of magnetic tapes is still seeing a lot of use for long-term data storage needs. While cloud service providers are providing cheaper ways of storing archival data, tape still remains a reliable long-term solution—provided the tapes are stored safely, of course.
Ceramic microfilm, DNA-based data storage, and fused silica—research groups across the world are experimenting with different ways of storing data for the long term. While not directly relevant to enterprises yet, some of these media could become the long-term storage formats of the future.
Data isn’t immortal or permanent. In fact, it may be more fragile than the average layperson thinks. From individuals to organizations, we all need to reconsider how we back up our data.
Cloud storage and external SSDs are one way to go, but neither of these are error-proof. Newer formats of data storage may perhaps overcome these challenges one day. In the meantime, age-old formats like magnetic tapes, printed documents, or the spy-film favorite microfilm could also be used for current longer term data backup needs.
Also, when backing up data or modernizing systems, organizations should ensure their files are still readable. This could mean anything from ensuring backwards file format compatibility to copying files into newer formats.
Happy World Backup Day in advance!