Storing data: A moving target

-June 16, 2017


My father took thousands of photos and movies, especially while I was a child. When he passed away, I made sure to keep all his old photos, slides and 8 mm movies. I also kept his movie projector, which still works. But, what happens when the projector no longer works? How will I be able to see the old movies? Plus, his slide projector is long gone.

I've started scanning the slides to .jpg images, which will take a long time. Fortunately, he documented each slide and movie so I know who he photographed. But, will there be any machine that can read such images for future generations? How should I store the digitized slides—on disc drives, CDs, or flash drives?

Eventually, there won't be a machine left that can read them. Will there be a machine left that lets us view the original slides? The only way I can see the slides themselves is with the slide imager I bought about a year ago, but at least I can scan slides myself. The slide imager stores .jpg files to an SD card, for which my laptop PCs have slots. Transferring the image files to the laptop is easy, but perhaps the next laptop will lack a SD card slot. Thus, I keep an adapter handy for when that day comes.

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This photo slide digitizer saves .jpg files to an SD memory card.

I certainly don’t have the equipment to digitize 8 mm film. There are services that will produce digitized movies on DVD, but those services are expensive and besides, DVDs are already on the way out. That's why I have DVD versions of just two of my father's two-dozen or so film reels. For now, the advantage of the DVD is that those movies reside in multiple locations because my cousins have copies.

Archiving home movies is a small problem compared to what Hollywood is facing with archiving films, as a recent article in IEEE Spectrum pointed out. The problem is accelerating because digital video formats keep changing. The digital format used for storing movies, called Linear Tape-Open (LTO) evolves and is only backward compatible for two generations, forcing archivists to go through expensive upgrades.

A few years ago, I had some documents that were in obsolete formats. For example, we had some documents in .doc format. No, not MS Word, but Multimate. I had to open the files in an old version of WordPerfect and save them as .doc so that Word can read them. At some point, I should save them as .docx files and PDFs.

All of this leads me to ask, what about engineering data? How long do you need to store your measurements, schematics, and source code? If you design long-life products such as those for the military, medical, or automotive applications, you surely need to keep data for years. Where do you store such data and in what format? Storing test data is likely not as big an issue because the data was digital to begin with, but some designs may exist only on paper. Still, you need a way to store and retrieve data. Do you keep old computers in the lab just to retain the ability to read old files?

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What if the Dead Sea Scrolls had been digital files?
Would anyone have been able to decipher them?

Sometimes, it seems the only way to store documents is on paper, which requires no machine for you to read them. Of course, having hard copies of data isn't very useful unless someone has done the data analysis and all you need to do is read the report. Having hard copies is partly why I wanted to preserve the EDN print issues. Someday, the servers that hold this web site will fail or close and EDN's digital-only portion may vanish forever, but the print issues will live on. From then on, people will think that EDN vanished in June 2013, when the last print issue was published.

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