Archiving Computer Data – A Constant Struggle

I often recommend to my clients that do not currently have a backup regimen to consider adding one to help minimize the chance of data loss. After all, can one stand the thought of losing cherished digital photos, music that was painstakingly ripped from personal compact discs, financial data from programs like Quicken and QuickBooks, or anything else they may have created and would be irreplaceable if lost? A backup regimen could help minimize the pain of data loss. But what about historical data that you've accumulated over the years? Do you think you're safe given you have that info backed up somewhere? Think again. The passage of time can be your worst enemy with respect to backed up data.

Recently, I was asked to pull data from a 3.5" 800KB floppy disk for a local church. Remember floppy disks? For Mac users, this was the primary means of "backing up" data from the Mac's inception in 1984 to a few years after Steve Jobs introduced the iMac without a 3.5" floppy disk drive (1998) and declared the floppy disk was dead. My first "modern" Mac laptop was a 2000 G3 "Pismo" PowerBook and it had all "modern" ports such as USB 1.1, FireWire 400, and a whopping 12GB hard drive and 128MB of RAM. It, however, lacked a floppy disk, which frankly, I did not miss one bit. Just to be on the safe side, though, I bought an external 3.5", USB-based 1.44MB floppy drive in case I had to read a 3.5" disk on occasion. Truth is - I rarely, if ever, used it. Getting back to my data recovery efforts, I realized I could not use the external USB 3.5" floppy drive to read this disk. See, external USB 3.5" floppy drives cannot read any disk format other than 1.44MB floppies. So, if you have a 400KB/800KB Mac-formatted floppy disk or a 720KB PC-formatted floppy disk, you're "up the proverbial polluted tributary without means of locomotion" if you catch my drift.

As time goes by, new media styles come out and replace old media styles. For example, 8" floppies were replaced by 5 1/4" floppies which, in turn, were replaced with 3.5" floppies, which in turn, were replaced by Zip disks as files got larger, which in turn, were themselves replaced by CD-Rs and DVD-Rs. People are starting to use USB pen drives or "thumb" drives now in place of burning CDs and DVDs. The question you have to ask yourself is "Will the computer I'm using in the future be able to read the media on which I archived my data in the past?" Put another way, "Will the computer I'm using in the future be able to read [Gentle Reader, insert media choice here] on which I archived my data in the past?"

Additionally, media used for archiving digital information does have a "life span." Floppy disks don't last forever and are susceptible to damage or erasure by magnetic sources (e.g. stereo speakers, some CRT monitors) and, given they have moving parts, sometimes those parts just fail. Gentle Reader, if you've ever used Zip disks, for example, then you may be familiar with the infamous Zip disk "
Click of Death" syndrome. When CDs/DVDs were introduced, it was claimed that they offered a 100+ year life span but some say that life span isn't nearly as long as what we were told. Even solid-state USB "thumb" or "pen" drives have a maximum read/write point and they be very prone to data loss if not ejected properly. The point is the actual media itself may not stand the test of time. If the media doesn't stand the test of time, the data you've archived on it may not last as long as you'd like.

Another point to consider is the application that you created your data file with in the first place may not be around in the future. Even if the application still exists, the current version may not be able to open your old file. For example, will you be able to access that TurboTax tax return from 2003 without having the TurboTax application that created it? To further complicate the matter, your current computer may not be able to even run that application due to operating system incompatibilities and/or physical hardware issues (i.e. lack of a floppy disk drive).

So what should you consider, Gentle Reader, when archiving important data? Consider archiving your data in the most common data formats available at the time you are archiving on media that is the most prevalent. Today, that would be text files (also known as ASCII text), PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and JPEGs (for graphic files). Put those files on the media you reasonably think will be around during the next 3-5 years. Today, that would be CDRs, DVDs, and solid-state USB "thumb" or "pen" drives. You should also plan to copy those files over to new media types as they become available so that your data is always physically accessible. Likewise, you should update your Word documents and Excel spreadsheets so that the latest and greatest Office applications can read the data. If you've used Office over a period of several years, you may know that the
file formats have changed gradually over time.

Files like text files, PDFs, and JPGs shouldn't have to be updated very often as those file formats have been around for many years and haven't changed all that much. In fact, text files have been around in their current form since the mid-1980s and PDFs and JPGs have been around since the early 1990s. Chances are that those formats will be around for many more years to come. Give some thought, though, to using "standardized" programs at the time the files are created and then, as time goes by, update those files to the "standardized" programs that you're using in the future. As you may recall, WordPerfect was once the "king of the hill" with respect to word processing programs on the PC platform. In other words, it was once the standard word processing program. Gradually, however, WordPerfect was replaced with Microsoft's Word. Today, it can be said that Word is the standard word processing program. As a result, you should consider upgrading from what was once the standard program to the new standard program. So now is the time to upgrade those WordPerfect files to Word. Mac users may remember a time when MacWrite was the dominant word processing program. After all, it came with all new Macs. Gradually, MacWrite's dominance was overtaken by Word and Word has been the dominant word processor on the Mac since the late '80s or early '90s.

In conclusion, archiving data is not a "one and done" process. You have to remain vigilant as to popularity of the archiving media you're using, its lifespan, and the compatibility of the files you have archived with outdated applications with their modern versions. You should periodically update your files and media to ensure that they will be accessible, readable and useable in the future.