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Google Vice President Vint Cerf: Print digital files, or risk losing them

Google Vice President Vint Cerf: Print digital files, or risk losing them

Speaking at a conference in San Jose, California, Vint Cerf cited a huge problem with our ability to preserve and run software over long periods of time. He said he felt a ‘great burden’ to find a way to create digital formats which can still be accessed in thousands of years. For now, he advised the printing of treasured photos to ensure they are always to hand.

This leads us to consider legal retention periods for business information – which sometimes span decades. Printing reams of documentation is not a practical solution and this makes a major issue of the decisions you take around storage. 

So, what can you do to ensure that those business critical documents you want to store for many years will remain accessible? Here are our top considerations concerning this issue.

1. Take care if you choose to store ‘hard copy’ files

Whenever paper files are moved or handled they are at risk of loss, serious damage or mild degradation. Long-term storage in itself is also a risk - picture dusty yellowed pages held together by rusted paperclips. 

Arena’s Neil Maude comments; “Some types of printed or hard copy documents are particularly sensitive, such as thermal print material, which we've seen degrade significantly in as little as 5 years – and become totally illegible within 10 years.” 

Carefully plan how you store hard copy documents. We would always recommend an electronic document and records management system (EDRMS) to safeguard your information from damage, degradation and disasters such as floods.

2. Beware of simply saving files onto a disk

To reiterate Mr Cerf’s good point, it can currently be a challenge to open an AmiPro word processing file, or even a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet file - both common formats 15 years ago.

Consider file structure - how will you find the file you want, when you want it - and how will you manage the disposal of documents at the end of their retention period?

Add to this the risk of corrupted media and security concerns surrounding the flagging and prevention of file tampering or accidental file deletion and you face quite a challenge.

3. Opt for scanned images and PDF/A files

We would expect that a scanned image file (eg; a CCITT Group4 compressed TIFF file) is likely to last for in excess of 30+ years as these formats are well understood and commonly used. Also look out for PDF/A files, which are specifically designed for archiving and defined in ISO19005-1:2005.

Crucially, select a storage solution that supports whatever you put into it on the first day, making it usable on the last day – without degradation or expensive maintenance work.

4. Establish the long-term development plan for your digital storage solution

Always ask vendors about the future plans of any chosen EDRMS. If the system becomes obsolete, will you be able to extract, open and read the files stored within it – or move them to a new system?

Plan for the day when the system will need replacement and consider how you will transfer your archived data to the next system. This will happen repeatedly as technology advances throughout the lifetime of your data archive.

Further Information

Article in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11410506/Print-out-digital-photos-or-risk-losing-them-Google-boss-warns.html …

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