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Do your Digital Records have an Expiration Date?

A man holding a card in cupped hands with a hand written message on it, Data.

Hmmm … how long has that carton of milk been in the fridge?  Take it out and give it a sniff, then check the expiration date.  Whew, still good for tomorrow’s coffee.

Unfortunately, knowing if your digital records will still be usable in the future isn’t quite so easy.

As companies think about their digital information and preserving both critical business records and unique company heritage, some data specialists are considering how they will store, protect and read digital files 100 years from now.

Yet, we’re finding that the “freshness” date on digital content may be closer to 10 years than 100.

All of this prompts growing in interest in the topic of data preservation. But many IT leaders want more information on what data preservation is all about.

Will your Critical Corporate Information be Useable 10 years from Now?

Think about the changes we have seen in technology over just the last 20 years – some of us remember floppy disks, Smart Drives and CD-ROMs, right? More importantly, what about Lotus 1-2-3, WordStar, PageMaker, and early versions of Word and Excel? These and many other formats are now unreadable, yet critical corporate information may be saved in these formats.

It's because of this rapid evolution that digital preservation technology is moving from niche to mainstream. Digital preservation has been recognized for a long time as an essential service by memory and cultural institutions such as museums and archives such as Yale University, the UK National Archives, and the Museum of Modern Art.

However, digital preservation is now moving up the corporate agenda as senior executive stakeholders realize that storage on its own is not enough. As more “born digital” content is produced every day, requirements get more complex, and the need for organization-wide digital preservation strategies becomes greater. This is why corporations such as the Associated Press, HSBC, and Lloyd’s Banking Group have joined the fray.

Vint Cerf (one of the fathers of the Internet and now a Google VP) has recognized this risk, and has warned us about a “Digital Dark Age” whereby all the records of the 21st century could be lost forever as hardware and software becomes obsolete, and digital files become unreadable. As Cerf commented, “What can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”

The New “Tipping Point” for Digital Content

Due to file format and software obsolescence issues, along with the pace of technology refresh cycles, the consensus is that the “tipping-point” for accessing digital data is not 100 years after it is stored, but more realistically, around 10 years. So, if you have digital files and records being created today that have a 10 year+ retention time or are indeed already 10+ years old, you run the risk of not being able to read or use these when they are required.

Ten years is a more realistic time-frame to consider when planning protection for critical and unique digital information assets. Building on reliable storage, digital preservation adds tools to accurately identify which formats are being used, pinpoint those at risk, and reliably recycle these into newer formats that can be read.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen a growing number of large corporations begin to wake up to this as they have realized that digital preservation isn't just about storing digital assets, but also about being able to find and use them as well as to prove their trustworthiness.

This means that the storage landscape is changing, as many organizations add digital preservation technology to their content management and information archiving systems. In addition, digital preservation is being used to accelerate legacy application decommissioning. This also helps free up vital IT budget by ensuring the records that those applications contained are safely stored and accessible into the future.

Although many companies would like to think about managing their corporate information assets as a “set it and forget it” process, in reality, you need to take an active role. For many organizations, a proactive approach to safeguarding critical long-term digital records using digital preservation technology is fast becoming a critical part of the overall information governance lifecycle.

(About the author: Jon Tilbury is the CEO of Preservica, a leader in digital preservation technology, consulting and research. You can contact the company at Jon at www.preservica.com or follow the company on Twitter at @preservica).

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