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Column Bernd Schöne: Long-Term Storage – Going, Going – Done!

Excuse me – I need some help. For a long time, I’ve been wanting to store my data permanently. No, I don’t mean on a USB stick or a hard drive. I mean something really, really durable – Long-Term Storage!

I read somewhere that papyrus scrolls have survived unaided in the arid Qumran desert for more than 2,000 years. The Icelandic sagas were inscribed on cowhides more than 900 years ago, and the illuminated manuscripts produced by medieval scribes on vellum gathered dust for centuries unprotected before most of them were transferred to modern, climate controlled museum vaults. A few years back, copies of the very frst Charlie Chaplin films were found in a garbage dump. They could still be played and are now preserved in digital copies.

The data stored from my early computer years weren’t so lucky: they’re gone forever. Whatever happened to all the stuff we stored on our Ataris and Commodore 64s? The hard disk on my first PC gave up the ghost before I could make a backup. When I see the mountains of hard disks to be found in every data center I have ever visited, I tend to think the problem persists even today.

Bernd Schöne

NASA lost 1.2 million tapes – including the ones from the Apollo moon landing.

Bernd Schöne
is a veteran German Internet journalist and an expert on cybersecurity


Personally, I always had a penchant for Fujitsu’s magnetooptical storage device, the fabled MO disk – but Fujitsu discontinued it, so that’s not an option, either.

Of course, there’s always tape – but just how reliable are they? NASA says 1.2 million tapes containing data and images from decades of space exploration, including from the Apollo 11 moon landing, are gone – either misplaced, erased, or crumbled to dust due to unsuitable conditions in the space agency’s storage warehouse. Even if the tapes survived or could be found, that doesn’t mean they would still be readable. Just ask the people at the former East German spy agency, the ill-famed Stasi.

Magnetic tape cost real money back in the days of the great socialist experiment, so scientists devised a way to compress the data with the help of special mathematical routines. Unfortunately, nobody remembers how they worked so, while the tapes still exist, their contents are irrecoverable. But today we have DVDs, don’t we? They are made from plastic that should be indestructible, right? Actually, nobody knows for sure. Experts believe that a DVD may last as long as 30 years, which is a big step from the old CD, which deteriorates after five to ten years due to oxidation of its metallic film coating.

Many still think that film is the answer. In 2004, scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute started what they called Project Ark, which featured laser recording technology for long-term storage of analog originals and digital data on color microfilm they said would last at least 500 years. The system was designed to work without the need for copying or running lots of servers. In 2006, funding ran out, and little has been heard since.

Maybe my best bet would be HD Rosetta, a system developed by the US firm Norsam which specializes in microscale technology. In Rosetta, information such as texts, line illustrations, or photos are etched on nickel plates and can be read with the help of an electron microscope. The company maintains that a single plate can hold up to 160,000 pages or images and are immune to water or radiation damage and safe for at least 1,000 years – not that I’ll be around to check if they’re right, mind you. If you travel in Africa or Asia, you might see vintage airplanes like the DC-4, which first flew in 1938, or old Cessnas built in the ’50s and ’60s. If you are ever in Austria, make a point of taking a ride on the Achensee Cog Railway. The steam engine was built in 1888 and, if they keep taking good care of it, it might still be running well into the next century. That is if they can still find the manual and the blueprints which are, unfortunately, mostly stored digitally nowadays. When they’re gone, the choochoo’s days are numbered.

I discussed the storage problem with an old colleague of mine a couple of weeks ago, and he had an ingenious suggestion: punch cards! Or does anyone have a better idea?

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