In Part 1 of this series, you were introduced to digital records and digital preservation, which goes beyond backup to provide long term protection of your family history digital records. Here in Part 2, you will be introduced to the challenges of digital preservation and explores in detail solutions to archival storage media challenges.
Digital Preservation Challenges
Just as preservation of physical records has challenges, so does preservation of digital records, although the challenges are different. You cannot feel or see digital information, which is written to a storage medium that a computer can interpret. Digital information may be characterized as a string of 1’s and 0’s where each digit is called a “bit.” Digital bits are written in a predefined file format that computer software interprets so a digital record can be rendered on a computer screen or a printer.
Unfortunately, almost all computer storage media decompose over time, causing bit loss—which in turn causes data loss. Depending on the type of record, loss of a single bit could result in the corruption of a word (in a personal history, for example), or it may only cause a tiny flaw in an image that is not discernable to the human eye (in a photograph, for example).
The random, unpredictable nature of bit loss caused by storage media degradation can complicate management of a digital archive if not addressed.
Another challenge of digital preservation is obsolescence—both of file formats and storage technologies. Historically, new or enhanced storage technologies and file formats are introduced periodically to improve functionality and/or lower costs. As these enhancements are embraced by the computer industry, their adoption can cause issues for digital preservation. The reason is that vendor support is eventually withdrawn for storage technologies and file formats that become obsolete as newer formats and technologies gain popularity.
As with bit loss caused by storage media degradation, file format and storage technology obsolescence can also complicate management of a digital archive if not addressed.
Archival Storage Media Challenges and Solutions
Industry experience with storage media used for digital preservation purposes has shown that external hard drives and commodity optical discs (writable CDs and DVDs) have an archival life as short as three to five years—meaning that digital bit loss can occur in just three years! And USB flash drives, which many people use to store their digital family history records today, have an even shorter archival life!
According to IT Director Rae Williams, “Flash drives are very handy for carrying files from place to place and computer to computer. However, they are relatively volatile storage, so you should never consider them a primary backup for your files. They fail much, much, much more quickly than CDs or hard drives.” 1
While such storage technologies are useful for short term backup, they do not provide an adequate solution for long term digital preservation because of the high probability that bit loss will occur in a relatively short time.
Happily, a practical and effective solution for storage media bit loss is now available—the M-DISC, a revolutionary, archival optical disc technology manufactured by Millenniata, Inc.2
In effect, the M-DISC records your family history records with permanent engraving—like etching stone (as with petroglyphs, which were the inspiration for developing the technology). Unlike other optical discs that use an organic dye for recording, the M-DISC uses a synthetic stone-like material to record your digital bits. A high powered laser etches the bits into this synthetic stone, and they can be read by virtually any DVD or Blu-ray drive.
In 2009, the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, California tested four different brands of gold archive-grade DVDs and one commodity DVD along with the M-DISC. The project was an accelerated aging test that evaluated disc stability and readability after being exposed to elevated levels of light, heat, and humidity. A report of the testing results stated, “None of the Millenniata media suffered any data degradation at all. Every other brand tested showed large increases in data errors after the stress period. Many of the discs were so damaged that they could not be recognized as DVDs by the disc analyzer.” 3
Based on this and other internal testing, Millenniata claims that the M-DISC has an archival life measured in centuries (i.e., a millennium!). And M-DISCs have no special storage requirements to achieve this remarkable archival data life. Clearly, the M-DISC represents a breakthrough in archive-grade storage media.
On August 15, 2011, Millenniata announced a manufacturing and marketing partnership with Hitachi-LG Data Storage, Inc. (the world’s leading company in the optical storage industry) to manufacture M-DISC compatible DVD drives and market them through LG’s sales channels. Under the partnership, LG Data Storage will manufacture M-READY DVD drives and market and sell them to its U.S. and international retail channels under its DVD brands. All M-DISC compatible aftermarket drives will include the M-DISC logo indicating compatibility to write to M-DISCs.
The LG Super-Multi Drive (available in Q4 2011 on Millenniata’s website2 ) is capable of reading and writing Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and M-DISCs—offering you the widest capabilities of any optical disk drive.
M-DISCs and LG manufactured M-READY DVD drives will also be sold in popular retail stores beginning in October 2011. Over time, they will be available at a growing number of other retailers.
Millenniata also announced that its suggested retail price for a single M-DISC is $2.99, with discounted prices for 5-disc and 10-disc packs. Furthermore, Millenniata is currently working on a Blu-ray version of the M-DISC that will be announced at a later date.
With the M-DISC, you can now preserve your digital family history records for generations without worrying about random, unpredictable bit loss and data loss that complicate the management of a digital archive.
Although the Millenniata/Hitachi-LG Data Storage partnership will undoubtedly create a significant consumer market for the M-DISC, the prospect of DVD and Blu-ray obsolescence remains a potential issue that is addressed below.
Addressing the Challenge of Obsolete Storage Technologies
Reflecting on computer technology history, you might assume that the day will eventually come when DVD and Blu-ray drives are out of production. What will happen to your family history records written to M-DISCs then?
Fortunately, there is a straightforward solution to this potential predicament. The solution is referred to as a media refreshment migration in the digital preservation industry.
Such a migration involves copying your family history digital records to a newer storage medium that is about to replace DVD or Blu-ray technology. More specifically, you should copy your M-DISCs to the M-DISC replacement technology of the future, whatever it turns out to be.
The most obvious risk of this solution is procrastination—i.e., putting off the migration (copying) work until you can no longer read the records stored on the older technology (for whatever reason).
Assuming the migration work is completed in a timely manner, media refreshment provides a viable solution for providing access to your digital record collection in the future.
However, the migration work may have to be performed by your posterity or your extended family, since you may not outlive the ability to read M-DISCs. Therefore, it behooves you to prepare your posterity and extended family for such migrations.
There are three software tools available for Windows that can help with media refreshment migrations. One is TeraCopy,4 a high speed data copier. The other, Unstoppable Copier,5 can help recover data from scratched discs. Both can be downloaded over the Internet free of charge for home use. IsoBuster6 is another data recovery tool for purchase that can rescue lost files from a bad CD, DVD, or Blu-ray disc.
Media refreshment also provides a means to prevent bit loss if you choose to store your digital family history records on a storage medium other than M-DISCs (assuming you complete the migration before any bit loss occurs).
Some words of encouragement and direction are in order here. First, the Blu-ray Disc Association has recommended that Blu-ray disc drives be capable of reading DVDs. While this recommendation is not compulsory, most (if not all) Blu-ray disc drives sold today provide DVD compatibility. And with the Millenniata/Hitachi-LG Data Storage partnership discussed previously, it is reasonable to expect that LG Blu-ray drives will support the DVD format and M-DISCs for years to come.
The goal of the partnership between Millenniata and Hitachi-LG Data Storage is to create a new de-facto standard for archive-grade storage media. If this goal is realized, the computer storage industry will be forced to accept and deal with the new standard.
Perhaps more importantly, you have the opportunity to change the course of history regarding archival storage media readability!
Consider the chronicle of the long-playing (LP) phonograph record. It was introduced in 1931, gained tremendous popularity in the third quarter of the Twentieth Century, was superseded by the compact disc in 1982, and yet you can still buy needles and turntables today—nearly eighty years after its introduction. Why? Because a significant market for playing or digitizing LP records exists today. To illustrate, a recent Google search on “LP record turntable” provided about 684,000 results!
As more and more people like you invest in archive-grade storage media such as M-DISCs, a market is being created for readers that can and will buck the historical computer technology trend. This is why you have the opportunity to change the course of history regarding archival storage readability. Carpe diem!
After reading this discussion about the challenges of digital preservation and solutions to archival storage media challenges, you are ready for Part 3 of the series, which explores in detail solutions to file format challenges.
This article is part of the Preserving Your Family History Records Digitally series by Gary T. Wright. Each article in the series is part of the white paper, Preserving Your Family History Records Digitally.