How Do I Read This?

The one thing that seems to be consistent when it comes to computers is change. It seems that every week I get a PR note or a news briefing about a new CPU or a new graphics card or a new operating system or a new hard disk or something.

And if you want to run the latest game, or for that matter any other piece of software, you need the latest gadget.

The obvious problem with this is cost. The new gadgets always cost a lot. Wait a few months and the cost comes down, the bugs get ironed out and all is wonderful.

But there is a hidden problem that most people never think about.

To explain I need to take a slight diversion in to realm of backups and archiving. I'm quite sure most of you do take backups, although if you are anything like me it is not very often. But how often do you test your backups?

By that I mean do you ever try and restore a file from your back up before you need it?

Most people don't. And it's not just people, quite a number of companies, both big and small, don't test out the restore process either. Which when you think about it is rather silly. After all if you cannot restore a file from your backup media, then the back up is some what useless.

There are a number of reasons why you might not be able to restore the backup. For example the media on which you copied the files is damaged. Most people will back up to either floppy disks or tape, and both can get damaged very easily. Dust for example can get on the recording surface, which can in turn lead to scratching. If you leave it for too long the magnetic coating can sort of "de-magnetise" and loose the data. And of course the software used to create the backup may not work.

I can remember, many years ago a woman who backup her data to a removable hard disk every night. She checked the logs and if there were no error messages the hard disk was removed and stored in a fire safe. She followed all the rules and procedures. Unfortunately, her backups were no good. The software had a bug in it and was only copying half the files. The first twenty files were copied correctly. The next twenty were not copied, the directory entry was copied, buy the file was zero bytes in length ie it was empty.

There is another possible problem, but I'll come to that in a minute.

The same is true of archives. Incidentally if you do not know the difference between a backup and an archive, a back up is a copy of a file kept somewhere else, and archive is the original file moved to another location for long term storage. That is a backup is typically a copy of a file you are using, and archive is an old file you might want but not in the immediate future. For example, last years financial records might be archived and stored somewhere. This years financial records would be on the computer and backed up.

Typically archives can be stored for many years, and in some cases there is a legal requirement to keep records for a specific length of time, usually measured in years.

You have archived your data, tested the restore process and then stored the media in a secure place. Now a couple of years later you need to access the data. So you go to your store and pull out the media, and spend the next few days looking for a PC with a 5¼" floppy disk drive.

And that is the hidden problem, with the rapid changes in the PC world. No matter what you store your archives on, be it floppy disks, tape, or even CD rom, the technology will be obsolete within a few years.

So what can you do about it?

Well the simplest solution is to make sure you keep a machine which can read your archives. The trouble with that approach is what do you do when the hardware fails? And it will fail eventually, possibly not for many years, but it could be tomorrow.

The only safe solution, is to copy the archives each time you upgrade your hardware. So if you currently archive to CD rom, then when you get a DVD writer copy all your archive CD's to DVD. This has the added benefit of testing the restore process and ensuring that the data is "refreshed" [This is a problem with magnetic media more than CD's. In fact it is unlikely there will be a similar problem with CD's, but until they have been around for 25 years or more we cannot be sure.]

The problem with this approach is cost. For an individual it's probably not a major problem. For a small firm it might need an office junior to sit in front of a machine for a couple of days. But for a large firm, or one with a lot of data that needs to be kept, it may need someone full time. That is 5 days a week, just copying data onto the latest media.

If you need to archive data you need to consider the problem of reading it. If you have a legal requirement to store the data then you really need to look at all the options in detail to make sure that you adopt the most efficient, cost effective solution, for you.