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Last year, Vint Cerf—one of the fathers of the Internet and now a VP at Google—warned of an impending “Digital Dark Age” whereby all record of the 21st century could be lost forever as hardware and software become obsolete, and digital files become unreadable. Cerf commented, “What can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”
CIOs need to consider that the Digital Dark Age could affect more than cultural heritage and personal photos, but could put vital business records at risk. These records may be protecting the patents on which company value is built or demonstrating health and safety compliance to keep employees safe, and their loss can have very serious consequences for the board, employees, and shareholders.
The good news is that the Digital Dark Age debate has highlighted the emergence of Digital Preservation as a technology and highlighted just how valuable it is becoming. It may be an unfamiliar term now, but soon digital preservation will be a standard part of the information governance landscape and keeping information usable, readable and trustworthy will play a vital role in protecting company value and creating opportunity.
The Long-term Digital Information Challenge
Chief Information Officers are given the task of managing business information throughout its lifetime. It is perhaps understandable that your focus is mainly on where that information has most value—during its creation, immediate use and short term retention. You support the company in this by adding new software systems to create better quality information and to consume it more effectively and this constant improvement means soon the information is held in many different formats in different management systems and is owned and understood by different people.
"Digital preservation needs to be built into the corporate information landscape"
As time goes on the value of the information becomes lower, so the CIO’s gaze moves on. However, much of this business information still has a vital role to play and needs to be retained safely, often for decades. Information may be required to demonstrate compliance, either with general business rules such as environmental protection or industry specific regulations. It may also be retained as evidence for potential legal use, for example protecting IP, demonstrating good practice if challenged about decision making or fulfilling freedom of information requests. It can also be kept to create value, by reviewing earlier activities to improve current practice or adding vital data points to trend analysis.
Information is also needed to protect the organizational brand. In a more volatile economic environment, longevity in business is being seen as reassuring and nostalgia for old brands and helps cement customer relationships. However, this information is held digitally and needs to be retained maybe forever.
Creating a coherent set of this information taken from generations of information systems often managed by their predecessors is the challenge with which CIOs are being confronted. How can you ensure this vital information can be found, used quickly by the people who need it, and can be trusted? This is a new challenge that is being added to the long list of other issues you face.
The Role of the CIO in Safeguarding Digital Information
Protecting information for the long term is clearly part of the CIO’s remit, so some are starting to consider how this is done. Most think first about shifting it to a reliable storage location—and this is a good start. As time passes, storage media fails. So, keeping copies in multiple places and constantly checking and “self-healing” from a good copy if a failure happens needs to be built into any storage solution. It is vitally important that data from removable media, laptops, and other volatile locations is saved here as soon as possible.
Good storage is just the start. Many CIOs have been in the IT business for years and can remember back to when they started and used packages such as Lotus 1-2-3, Word or Excel for DOS, WordStar, or early versions of MS Project. If your information was created by one of these once ubiquitous packages, it is already too late— they cannot be read by today’s supported software.
The problem is getting worse as information becomes more complex. Files now are not just static documents, they have behavior and it is the way users interact with them that is important—spreadsheets change as numbers are entered, PowerPoints have animations and CAD drawings are complex 3D hierarchies so printing to paper isn’t even a solution. Add to this user expectation in a post-Google world—we want the information now and expect to start using it immediately wherever we are.
Digital preservation experts talk about a “10 year tipping point.” This refers to the 10 year window during which you can trust that current software can still read the information created on standard IT systems. After this, the information becomes more and more at risk from software obsolesce—especially as you need not only the originating software but the right operating system and hardware combinations to enable it.
The solution is to do something now whilst you still can to ensure your information can be read tomorrow, and this is where digital preservation comes in. Building on the reliable storage it adds tools to identify which formats you have, identifying those at risk and to reliably recycle these into files that can be read today. This is done at scale, maintaining the original for evidential validity, but creating new files that can be consumed immediately.
Bringing it Together—Is Cloud the Answer?
Digital preservation needs to be built into the corporate information landscape. Information needs to be fed directly into digital information systems from the live locations without user involvement at a time when the information is still readable. Users need to be able to search and access the information using whatever device they have.
The cloud may help. It certainly provides the durable storage that is required, and also allows the current specialist technologies required to be provided and updated. It also means that vital internal IS resources are not being consumed on lower value niche applications.
Future-proofing your Organization
By building digital preservation into your information management landscape, you are protecting it long into the future and creating opportunity for information re-use. Digital preservation systems are emerging that make this a pluggable technology that will keep you safe from the late night phone call from the CEO who needs his information immediately but can’t read it. And that has got to be worth it.