Why accessing business data is still a struggle

Permanence is about more than just storage. Enterprise data can be digital or it can be permanent, but can it be both?

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There’s no knowing when old business information will become relevant once more. Technical documents, contracts, correspondence, legal discussions and internal memos can all turn out to be useful—even vital—long into the future. Additionally, most countries have statutes of limitation for accounting or legal purposes, which means that companies are obliged to keep business information for a certain amount of time.

Some enterprises use third-party data archiving and document management companies for this task. These firms either scan and destroy documents on the premises or take them to secure facilities to do the work. Out goes three tons of paperwork, in comes a drive full of PDFs … which is filed in a drawer somewhere until it’s needed or, more likely, forgotten about.

Other companies allow some of their valuable data to be stored and maintained off-site. But storage companies come and go, even big ones. When they go, they may take their customers’ data with them. Even if they don’t fail, data can be mislaid due to poor indexing or deleted after a certain time period due to the lack of an appropriate contract clause. Organisations relying on third parties to store their data would be wise to read the small print.

That’s just the storage aspect; it doesn’t cover retrieval in a contemporary format or structure. The issue is more complicated when archiving more than just documents. Storing database tapes from 10 years ago safely offsite isn’t much use if there’s no current hardware or software capable of reading them. Drives wear out, rubber parts perish, belts dissolve with age, archiving software becomes obsolete.

Here’s a concrete example: this image file was created using the Paint program bundled with Microsoft Windows 2.03, which was the version of Windows in widespread use 30 years ago. The image was stored in the default Paint format. If you believe your own business data is safe for the long term, try converting this image into a modern format yourself to see what it contains.

Even if you succeed, you’ve only solved part of the equation. In 1987 this file would have been stored on a 5.25-inch floppy disk or an MFM hard drive, both probably long since destroyed by rust, mechanical failure, mould or demagnetisation. Even if they were intact now, few enterprises would have the hardware to access them. Less than a third of a century was enough to render this information all but inaccessible.

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