If you’re like most people, you probably have a dusty box of videotapes, cassette tapes, Zip disks, and other dead media collecting dust in your basement. But chances are, something similar is happening at your company: An increasing collection of data is accumulating on media that may be difficult or impossible to read.

There are two ways in which data can become outdated:

Media obsolescence: The media on which the data is stored can become unreadable, for one reason or another. You may no longer have devices that can read the media. The media may have a form of copy protection that you no longer know how to circumvent. The media may become directly damaged, by being folded or broken, or it could be degraded to the extent that it can no longer be reliably read.

Software obsolescence: Even if the media itself can still be read, you could find yourself unable to read the data on the media because the software that knows how to read that format is no longer available. How many people still have WordPerfect or Xywrite around to read those files? Do you still have the email program you used ten years ago?

Media obsolescence is less serious than software obsolescence because data can be copied from one form of media to another. Experts advise that when you move to a new form of data storage, make sure you back up all your previous data on the new form of data storage.

But there’s no simple way to deal with the software issue. Converting files from WordPerfect to Microsoft Office, for example, involves a certain amount of work and may simply kick the can down the road for later generations, though at least it’s a start. Relying on software emulators of older programs is also an option. Organizations such as national libraries are at the forefront of this research.

The best thing to do is ask yourself a few questions and take a few simple steps: How long does your does your organization need to retain its data? How far back can you read yours? And when is the last time you tried? Store data needed for the long term in the simplest, least proprietary format possible. (Some countries have reportedly mandated the use of non-proprietary file formats for government business, for this reason.) At the very least, make sure the metadata is updated as time goes on so future generations of employees know what a file is about.

Data preservation problems will evolve as we move to new types of storage and systems. According to a 2010 Storage Networking Industry Association survey, 68% of businesses said they needed to preserve data for 100 years or longer. Try to make sure your data outlives you.

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