Keeping Your Stuff Safe, Part 2: the Local Route
Sep 19th, 2011 by Isaiah Beard

An External Hard Drive: the easiest method for making a quick copy of your important stuff. Photo taken by flickr user Miss Karen

All, right, so you’ve heard it over and over and again, and you know it’s true: you need to make regular backups of your stuff. But how?  What options do typical computer users have?

In the past few years, the options for preservation and backups have expanded quite a bit, giving users an enormous array of solutions to choose from.  Of course, the diverse options can be confusing: what’s the best choice for you?

The backup options out there can be grouped into two major categories: local storage and cloud storage.  Each has their strengths and weaknesses, and will appeal to different users based on where and how they use their computers.  Some of the best and most secure backup strategies make use of both solutions… a backup-of-the-backup, so to speak.  I’ll discuss that further in a later write-up.

In this article, I’ll talk about local storage.  In the next article, we’ll go into cloud-based solutions.

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Keeping Your Stuff Safe, Part 1: Why you need a Plan B
Sep 16th, 2011 by Isaiah Beard

A hard disk drive with damaged platters, caused by a head crash. The data on this drive is not recoverable.

Whether we like it or not, those of us who rely on electronics to get our work done are guaranteed one thing: a data loss event.  This means that at least once in our  lifetimes (and sometimes more than that), every one of us who uses a computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone or similar device is going to one day stare at our screens and realize that the piece of information we expected to be there, just isn’t.

It can happen any number of ways.  Sometimes, we users make a mistake and accidentally erase something we shouldn’t have… or someone else might’ve accidentally deleted something of ours that they shouldn’t have. Other times, it’s the computer’s fault: buggy software might’ve claimed to save something but didn’t, or a 10-year-old hard drive finally decided to give up the ghost.  And sometimes, acts of nature (power outage, natural disaster, or other events beyond our control) will intervene and cause vital work to be lost.

Of course, we’ve all heard it time and time again: to protect your documents, photos, drawings, artwork, and other important data, you need to have backups.  Unfortunately, while we all have heard this before and know it to be true, we don’t always follow through.  In the past it’s been tedious to do regular backups; a chore we all dread.  And so, it always falls but he wayside, and often, we get back into a backup regimen only after something bad has happened, and it’s already too late.

But take heart.  A lot has changed recently.  There ARE personal backup solutions out there that are surprisingly easy… and even automatic!  keeping your stuff safe doesn’t have to be a tedious chore anymore… as long as you’re willing to invest a little time and effort at the beginning, and in some cases a small amount of cash on an ongoing basis.

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New Anticircumvention Rulemaking: Major Shifts in the DMCA thanks to Library of Congress
Jul 26th, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Some major policy shifts came out of the Library of Congress today that fundamentally changes how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is applied and enforced.  This decision making is part of a three-year cycle in which the Librarian of Congress and the Register of Copyrights hear from the public and review policies regarding enforcement of the DMCA.  According to the Librarian of Congress’ statement:

Section 1201(a)(1) of the copyright law requires that every three years I am to determine whether there are any classes of works that will be subject to exemptions from the statute’s prohibition against circumvention of technology that effectively controls access to a copyrighted work.  I make that determination at the conclusion of a rulemaking proceeding conducted by the Register of Copyrights, who makes a recommendation to me.  Based on that proceeding and the Register’s recommendation, I am to determine whether the prohibition on circumvention of technological measures that control access to copyrighted works is causing or is likely to cause adverse effects on the ability of users of any particular classes of copyrighted works to make noninfringing uses of those works.

For this cycle, some rather significant rulings were made that are decidedly consumer-friendly and archivist-friendly.  In particular, the Register touched on:

  • Decryption of DVDs for fair use. Commercial and other video DVDs that are protected by the Content Scramble System (CSS) may now be lawfully decrypted, and the copy protection circumvented, for Fair Use purposes.  This includes extraction of short pieces for comment or criticism, educational uses in college and university settings, documentary filmmaking, and noncommercial videos.
  • Video games and computer programs. Recognizing that preservation of old, obsolete software packages like applications and video games can require some circumvention of anti-pirating schemes, it now appears that the LoC is giving some leeway here.  It is now legal to crack DRM on legally-obtained  games and software “when circumvention is accomplished solely for the purpose of good faith testing for, investigating, or correcting security flaws or vulnerabilities.”  It is also legal now to bypass protection measures where security dongles are required if the security measures “prevent access due to malfunction or damage and which are obsolete.”
  • eBooks. With some formats heavily protected by DRM measures, potential eBook buyers are often frustrated by an inability to transfer their legally-purchased content across platforms, and the blind are often thwarted in their attempts to use software that will allow this content to be read to them.  Today’s decision partially relieves this angst.  In cases where no other alternative exists, the LoC has deemed it legal to bypass Digital Rights management for eBooks for the purpose of enabling text-to-speech.
  • Mobile Devices and Wireless Phones. This part of today’s decision deals specifically with a smartphone user’s right to load “unauthorized” or modified operating systems on their mobile devices, in particular, the practice of jailbreaking on Apple iPhones.  The LoC has ruled that this activity does fall under Fair Use.

This decision has been over a year in the making, and the next review cycle is less than two years away, at which point these decision may be revisited, or possibly even more DMCA exemptions will be laid out.

The official announcement and accompanying documentation can be found on the US Copyright Office Website here.

NY Times Article on the realities and costs of Born Digital preservation
Mar 16th, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Salman Rushdie. Source: Wikipedia. Click on image for link to source.

The New York Times today published an article that reflects some of the challenges of preserving born digital content – that is, documents, data and other content that has been created digitally, on a computer or electronic device, and for which there is no physical original (such as on paper).

In particular, they highlight the efforts of Emory University, in preserving Salman Rushdie’s archival materials.

Among the archival material from Salman Rushdie currently on display at Emory University in Atlanta are inked book covers, handwritten journals and four Apple computers (one ruined by a spilled Coke). The 18 gigabytes of data they contain seemed to promise future biographers and literary scholars a digital wonderland: comprehensive, organized and searchable files, quickly accessible with a few clicks.

But like most Rushdian paradises, this digital idyll has its own set of problems. As research libraries and archives are discovering, “born-digital” materials — those initially created in electronic form — are much more complicated and costly to preserve than anticipated.

Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and nonfiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — written on floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper. Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0’s and 1’s simply don’t exist anymore.

Imagine having a record but no record player.

An interesting aspect of this collection and its exhibition is that it emulates the experience Rushdie had in creating the content.  Rather than just viewing the finished documents, you get to see the computer desktop as he saw it, open up the same applications he used, all in the 1980s and 1990s technological contexts… and not using the modern, Web 2.0, Windows 7 or Mac OS X trappings we’re accustomed to in today’s computers.

I think this article is an excellent read, irrespective of what one’s views may be on the subject matter.  Material of all kinds, in increasing amounts, faces the same perils as this collection every day, and archivists everywhere, including this one, wrestle with how best to retain it all.  So far, the only tried and true method for such types of preservation is to obsessively manage and migrate the content, and that requires making tough decisions as to how to proceed, what formats to migrate to, and hoping the decisions made are the right ones to keep the content viable, at least until the next generation of technology requires that the hard decisions be made again.

DVDs to last for millennia? Perhaps, but at a cost.
Nov 13th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous articles, I’m incredibly skeptical of the long-term success of any digital storage attempt that relies on a single medium as its container. In particular, I find CDs and DVDs to be extremely suspect in terms of their longevity. Those of us who have been around the block with these technologies know that Gold CDs and DVDs were supposed to be the last word on digital preservation, lasting decades if not centuries. But mere years later, we all learned a new term to add to our archival vocabulary: Disc Rot.  It became very clear to all of us that not all discs – not even the gold ones – are made equal, and some even from “trusted” brands can delaminate, fade, have their media layers flake off, or otherwise deteriorate and become unreadable in rather short periods of time… sometimes with painfully devastating results for smaller archives who banked it all on CDs and DVDs.

As a result, a type of storage medium that we were told would last decades has been widely recognized as only being good for about two to five years.

So clearly, it’s not without some deep suspicion and trepidation that I view a recent announcement by an unknown start-up known as Cranberry, in which they claim to solve the Disc Rot problem, and has introduced a type of DVD that they say will last 1,000 years.

A Cranberry DiamonDisc is a DVD made of high tech stone.
Memories carved on a DiamonDisc will last as long as the pyramids. No reflective surface. No ink layer. No fading. Problem solved. The Library of Congress is studying our technology for storage of the national archives. It’s the only solution for permanent, digital storage.

Oh, really?

This is a pretty bold claim from a company that no one has heard from until recently.  But what hard evidence does Cranberry have to – forgive the pun – back it up with?

Unfortunately, you have to dig pretty deeply into their site, to a FAQ section way down at the bottom before you get to a far more realistic statement:

How can you prove that the Cranberry Disc will last for centuries?
No one can prove that anything will last for centuries, but there are international standards for estimating the archival lifetime of optical media. The ECMA‐379 (2nd edition, December 2008) which tests the effects of temperature and relative humidity is widely recognized. Researchers at Millenniata have tested the Cranberry Disc using the ECMA‐379 temperature and humidity (85°C / 85% RH) testing as a standard to develop the most rigorous testing possible. They have combined temperature and humidity (85°C / 85% RH) tests with exposure to the full‐spectrum of natural light. The Cranberry Disc is the only survivor after this rigorous testing. Considering the combination of the Cranberry Disc’s test results and its rock‐like data layer, it is reasonable to conclude that the Cranberry Disc has a greater longevity and durability than competitors who claim a 300‐year shelf life.

Here’s what worries me about the above statement: Millenniata does not appear to be a dedicated research firm.  In fact, if you go to their website, they seem to be marketing their own archival-quality disc storage under the brand name of M*ARC.  Per Millenniata:

Millenniata is the sole provider of a permanent, backwards-compatible archiving solution for the digital age. Located in Springville, Utah, Millenniata is poised to become the world’s leader in digital data preservation. Millenniata is the result of pioneering inventions from Brigham Young University.

So… what’s going on here exactly?  It’s difficult for me to accept that Cranberry claims to have cornered the market in creating DVDs that last a millenium, only to point to research done by a company that claims it holds the sole solution to the disc rot problem.

Both companies claim that their respective formats are not something that the mundane DVD burners on standard computer equipment can burn.  Cranberry claims the needed equipment to make a DiamonDisc is “out of the reach of most consumers,” and it wants you to send your data to them so that they can “etch” a DVD for you, at a cost between $29.99 to $34.95.  Millenniata, however, will gladly sell you the special burner required to author these discs, which according to some news sources will cost up to $5,000 for the drive and a pack of 10 discs.  Once created though, both products will purportedly read just fine on any DVD drive. The capacity of these discs are 4.7GB, the same as a single layer DVD-R.

My as-yet-unconfirmed speculation is that, based on the descriptions both entities provide for their products, the storage products both companies offer might actually be one and the same.  If that’s true, then I’d have to conclude that the research done on these discs’ longevity is hardly objective and unbiased.

So, should archivists invest money in these discs?

My philosophy has always been that you should never blindly trust a vendor’s claim about how long their storage media should last, nor should you trust a single storage solution for archiving your digital content.  If a curator wants to spend multiple thousands of dollars for an M*ARC drive, or spend $30-$35 for Cranberry to author each disc, that’s their decision, but it should be supplemented by a secondary solution, be that hard drives, tape, solid-state media, or some other well-known container format.   And that data needs to be checked periodically to verify its integrity.

Cranberry claims that the Library of Congress is studying the technology for its own archival use. Personally speaking, I would like to see the definitive results of such a study, before I would feel comfortable making a decision on whether M*ARC or DiamondDiscs are worth the premium.  And even then, I still would not back away from my two-format philosophy to long-term digital storage.

It’s ironic that Cranberry is hyping up NARA and LoC studies, citing them as reasons why you should be very,very afraid about storing your precious data on standard writeable disc media.  Let’s hope for their sake that the LoC verifies their claims are true, or else their marketing literature would prove pretty embarrassing.

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