I’ve been searching the Web for interesting items on backups and came across an article discussing the frequent failure of backup systems (due to one reason or another) and the even-more-frequent failure of businesses and individuals to have backup systems. One response written to this article was from a developer at a major storage management company, insisting that his company’s products were very good and you could count on them. The further responses to this letter ran along the lines of “As if.”
Then there were two articles on the subject of “dead media”—the first one arguing that because hard drive read/write speed can’t keep up with processor speed, we need another kind of disk to replace them. Many programs these days resist writing to the drive in order to maintain their speed—which is part of why you need so much more RAM than you used to. (And why having programs set to autosave your files can slow you down a lot if you are working with large files.)
Writing to other media is even slower. My new DVD-writer will write to a CD at 24x, but slows down to 1x when inscribing data on a DVD-RW. (Anyone who can answer the question “1x what?” gets a prize.)
The other article discussed the obsolescence of longer-term storage media—anyone remember 5.25″ disks? Since back in the days when I was an academic discussing electronic library projects with colleagues, people have been concerned that if they store their data electronically, it will be unreadable in the future, whereas writing on paper could still be read centuries from now.
Well, maybe. There are in fact fairly substantial fragments of perfectly legible ancient writing preserved on Egyptian papyrus. I got to spend one summer proofreading the printout of the newly-digitized version of a lot of them, back at the University of Michigan. But the survival of those documents depended on special conditions of climate and storage, and there are not very many people who can read the actual papyri (or even medieval manuscripts, in the case of Greek and Latin), because the style of writing is strange even to those with knowledge of ancient languages.
Most of the ancient texts we have today come to us because they were copied over and over: as one copy deteriorated, another was made. Greek texts went from papyrus to parchment to vellum to paper and were eventually mass-produced by printing press and finally scanned or typed in to electronic databases.
So it is with our electronic data. When we get a new kind of storage medium, we tend to copy our old data onto the new medium. This is just as often because the new media takes up less physical space as because we are thinking about long-term preservation. When I got a ZIP drive, I was able to get rid of a lot of floppy disks by copying them onto ZIP disks. The same holds true for ZIP disks and CDs, though before rewritable CDs became so common, ZIP disks still had an advantage over them. In most cases, we will keep moving what matters to us onto new media—and, if we still use those files at all, into new formats.
Besides, computers allow us to make so many copies, without deterioration of quality, that it becomes ever easier to make sure that some copy of a work is preserved. The challenge becomes one of having so much data that we can’t remember or can’t find what’s there, so I will conclude by saying: label your backups.
But first go and make them.
More backup news next week,