How to Make Your Data Last Forever

sociology dissertation in 1992, Robert Runté realized his floppies were readable only by an Osborne computer—and he was the only person he knew who still used one (released in 1981, the 25-pound Osborne is considered to be the first “portable” computer). So he uploaded his file to the University of Alberta’s mainframe—what could be more secure than that, he thought. Sure enough, about a year and a half later his ancient computer died, but because he had a backup, he didn’t mind when the people at the repair place “all laughed uproariously at the thought of trying to find parts” for the Osborne in order to fix it. He was covered.

Except that years later when he went to retrieve the data, Runté found the university mainframe he had backed up to had been torn down and replaced by Mac servers. (Luckily, Runté had his dissertation printed out.) Today Runté, a professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, backs up to multiple devices and advises grad students to send a hard copy of every new chapter of their all-important theses to the most reliable of off-site backups: Mom.

Runté’s experience points to the ultimate, inevitable problem with data storage: All interfaces and formats eventually die. Data storage consultant Tom Coughlin, founder of Coughlin Associates, calls it a fight against nature, saying, “the laws of thermodynamics are against you.”

Such a battle makes for a hazy long-term outlook. Will your data be accessible in 100 or even 50 years? Perhaps, but those data will likely be in different formats and will certainly be stored on different media than they are today. All modern-day technologies grow obsolete; either the hardware breaks or is replaced by something better, or new software takes over for the old, or both. In 50 years you may have a computer that can read PDFs, but you might have those PDFs stored on a medium the computer can’t read. Or the opposite may happen, with data stored on a readable format but saved in long-gone file formats. The key to preventing either case is accepting the nonstop job of staying technologically up to date.

Because there’s no single, perfect digital archiving solution, the key to making our data last forever is good habits. We need to be vigilant, continually moving our data forward to new formats and keeping it on multiple devices—before whatever we have becomes obsolete or simply fails. The best protection we have against data loss is redundancy—and lots of it. William LeFurgy, manager of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress, says the most important thing everyone should do is make copies of data and store those copies in different locations.

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