Media, Formats, Software, and Hardware - Data Warehouse ETL Toolkit

As we begin to think about really long-term preservation of digital data, our world begins to fall apart. Let’s start with the storage media. There is considerable disagreement about the practical longevity of physical media like mag tapes and CD-ROM disks, with serious estimates ranging from as little as five years to many decades. But, of course, our media may not be of archival quality, and they may not be stored or handled in an optimum way.We must counterbalance the optimism of vendors and certain experts with the pragmatic admission that most of the tapes and physical media we have today that are more than ten years old are of doubtful integrity.

Any debates about the physical viability of the media, however, pale when compared to the debates about formats, software, and hardware. All data objects are encoded on physical media in the format of the day. Everything from the density of the bits on the media, to the arrangement of directories, and finally to the higher-level application-specific encoding of the data is a stack of cards waiting to fall. Taking our eight-inch floppies as examples, what would it take to read the embedded data? Well, it would take a hardware configuration sporting a working eight-inch floppy drive, the software drivers for an eight-inch drive, and the application that originally wrote the data to the file.

Obsolete Formats and Archaic Formats

In the lexicon of digital preservationists, an obsolete format is no longe actively supported, but there is still working hardware and software extant that can read and display the content of the data in its original form. An archaic format has passed on to the nether realm. Our eight-inch floppies are, as far as we are concerned, an archaic format. We will never recover their data. The Phoenician writing system known as Linear A is also an archaic format that has apparently been lost forever. Our floppies may be only slightly easier to decipher than Linear A.

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