White Paper

Digital Preservation: Strategies to Ensure Accessibility of Long-Term Electronic Files

NOTE: The following is excerpted from a new White Paper published by AMI. For a copy of the complete document - as well as other free reports concerning Digital Preservation and Document Management - please visit http://www.amibusiness.com/dps

Digital Preservation, Digital Archiving, Digital Data Preservation - while the exact name has yet to be determined, the goal is the same: activities necessary for archiving digital files to ensure long-term accessibility.

Many organizations have not yet considered what Digital Preservation is and the potential negative impact it brings if ignored. This White Paper clearly explains the concept and problem of Digital Preservation, discusses who should be concerned and why, and explores the various options available in the marketplace - a must-read for anybody with long-term and permanent files in digital or electronic format.

The volume of digital files growing exponentially is due mainly to two factors:

  1. More and more documents are 'born digitally' and stay digital. Digitally born documents have begun not only to permeate the marketplace, but also are quickly becoming the preferred medium to store mission critical information.

  2. Companies are generating more paper than ever before. Realizing the benefits of digital preservation, these documents are then scanned back into Document Imaging Systems.
Not all digital files need to be kept for the long term, and in those instances Digital Preservation need not be a concern. However, many industries (Government, Education, Insurance, Finance, and Medical, for example) have stringent retention requirements and are highly regulated by both government and industry mandates and policies. Documents are required to be maintained for prolonged periods of time, and in many cases, permanently. The daunting task of document retention is generally charged to IT and Records Managers.

Understanding What Distinguishes a Long-Term Record

The length of time an organization must keep a document is based on its retention period. Retention period requirements and related storage media for electronic records can generally be divided into three groups: Short, Medium, and Long-Term.

As evidenced by Table 1, long-term digital files are rarely ever accessed, but yet must be kept due in many cases by external federal requirement or industry mandates, rather than internally motivated business reasons. For this reason, it is important to find a Preservation Strategy that allows the correct preservation and access to these files, and still allows organizations to focus resources on more mission-critical Active Files.

Misconceptions of Digital Archiving

As files progress through their Lifecycle, some of the above mentioned benefits for storing digitally become disadvantages due to the complex nature digital files and computer systems. Hardware, software, and media obsolescence, limited media life and stability, and backward compatibility are key factors in this disadvantage, and it actually ends up becoming harder to maintain accessibility and integrity as the file moves into its Inactive Phase and approaches the later years of its Lifecycle. In order for a digital file to be accessible, two key factors come into play:

Media Stability

The media on which the file resides must remain readable. Most media have a limited lifespan. This is dependant upon the media's physical composition and the storage and use environments in which the media is kept. The table below shows the shelf life of a storage (non-use) copy of typical media.

The above estimates are based on the 'storage copy' and not the 'use copy'. Additionally, the lifespan is greatly determined by storage in the correct environment for each media type. The typical scenario is that media is used for several years, stored away, and then never checked for stability until it is too late. Just as certain tape formats are now obsolete, industry experts predict that floppy disks will soon become obsolete and will be CD's, and even CD's will be replaced by DVD's.

System Dependence

Assuming that the media is stable and can be read, the organization must have the hardware to read the media. This is known as Hardware Dependence. The organization must also have the software able to interpret the bits and bytes in order to read the file, and this is known as Software Dependence. Making matters even more complicated, the software must be backwards compatible in order to read older versions of the file.

Digital Preservation Strategies

Historically, the Preservation Strategy for long-term hard-copy paper records involved a paper filing system for short-term files, on-site storage/warehouse for medium-term records, and then sending long-term files in boxes to off-site storage for the remainder of retention period. At the current moment, there is no one single accepted approach to ensuring that a digital file will last for the long-term. But, many organizations face the problem of needing to ensure long-term access to their electronic records today.

The first step in accomplishing this is recognizing the fact that digital files are at risk and that if action is not taken now, tremendous costs will be faced in the near future. Personnel and financial resources will need to be directed at retrieving and rebuilding Inactive Files, rather than focusing on mission-critical Active Files.

The next step is the implementation of a Digital Preservation Strategy - a plan that describes how the organization intends to deal with its long-term digital files. The below table summarizes four strategies based on various attributes. (For more information on each strategy, please see the complete White Paper on AMI's website.)

As the table points out, Migration's primary benefit is that it keeps the digital file in its native format. However, this comes at the highest cost and requires a perpetual commitment from the Preservation team and management. The effect is pyramidal, in that during each new cycle, an organization must migrate forward everything previous (rather than just migrating new files), and this process still runs the risk of data loss. Emulation is an approach that bears observation, but since it is not available now, there is no data to base an evaluation from. The Digital & Paper approach works fine, but is very costly and requires labor for printing and continuous costs for off-site storage.

Companies Choose the Digital & Film Approach

The benefits of the Digital+Film approach are superior to the Digital+Paper approach, not to mention the other approaches discussed, for several reasons:

  • Total Cost e conversion of digital files onto microfilm is a one-time cost. It is not continuous as in the case of the Migration, nor does it require continuous the off-site storage costs for Digital+Paper

  • Ease of Implementation the immediate need to deal with the Digital Preservation issue, the Digital+Film option is the only one that already has various proven options and solutions, with products available from multiple vendors

  • Highest Probability of Success g microfilm, the true 'archival' media with a 500-year shelf life, this option reduces risk to its irreducible minimum and thereby offers the highest probability of succeeding in ensuring long-term access.
A study done by the Gartner Group on August 8, 2001 entitled "Management Update: Important Issues About Digital Data Preservation" states:
"Taking into account the frequency of access, retention period and volume of data, Gartner recommends a move to analog, human-readable media for records that are to be housed longer than 10 years. Microfilm has an estimated life of up to 500 years, if properly stored."

AMI's Solution for Digital Preservation

In the same study, Gartner goes on to state, "Because of the complexity and time scale of the issues, enterprises are increasingly turning to outsourcers to manage long-term preservation of data. Through 2005, 50 percent of nongovernmental enterprises with long-term preservation needs will turn to outsourcers (0.9 probability)."

No other company is better poised to offer the nation the most intelligent and cost-effective solution to Digital Preservation as American MicroImaging (AMI), a company offering preservation services for over 30 years. AMI has built its solution line around the most viable Preservation Strategy - the Digital & Film Approach. The majority AMI's experience and expertise is in the areas of document imaging and microfilming services, products, and technologies, and AMI uses this experience to their client's advantage. In truly understanding the Preservation market and customer, AMI has developed AutoPreserve™, an automated background process which takes any digital file - at its point of creation - and archives an analog (film) copy preserving for the long-term and ensuring accessibility.

Digital Preservation, Digital Archiving, whatever the name may be…it is a problem that organizations need to deal with sooner than later. As of now, implementing a Strategy is up to the IT Department and/or the Records Managers, but, if it's too late, Executives will need to get involved as well, whether for legal reasons, issues of data loss, or because they are dissatisfied with new costs that need to be expended on old documents.

AMI - American MicroImaging, Inc.