data storage

Big Data, Long Term Digital Information Management Strategies & the Future of (Cartridge) Tape

What is the most effective way to store and manage digital data in the long term? This is a question we have given considerable attention to on this blog. We have covered issues such as analogue obsolescence, digital sustainability and digital preservation policies. It seems that as a question it remains unanswered and up for serious debate.

We were inspired to write about this issue once again after reading an article that was published in the New Scientist a year ago called ‘Cassette tapes are the future of big data storage.’ The title is a little misleading, because the tape it refers to is not the domestic audio tape that has recently acquired much counter cultural kudos, but rather archival tape cartridges that can store up to 100 TB of data. How much?! I hear you cry! And why tape given the ubiquity of digital technology these days? Aren’t we all supposed to be ‘going tapeless’?

The reason for such an invention, the New Scientist reveals, is the ‘Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope, whose thousands of antennas will be strewn across the southern hemisphere. Once it’s up and running in 2024, the SKA is expected to pump out 1 petabyte (1 million gigabytes) of compressed data per day.’

SKA_dishes

Image of the SKA dishes

Researchers at Fuji and IBM have already designed a tape that can store up to 35TB, and it is hoped that a 100TB tape will be developed to cope with the astronomical ‘annual archive growth [that] would swamp an experiment that is expected to last decades’. The 100TB cartridges will be made ‘by shrinking the width of the recording tracks and using more accurate systems for positioning the read-write heads used to access them.’

If successful, this would certainly be an advanced achievement in material science and electronics. Smaller tape width means less room for error on the read-write function – this will have to be incredibly precise on a tape that will be storing a pretty extreme amount of information. Presumably smaller tape width will also mean there will be no space for guard bands either. Guard bands are unrecorded areas between the stripes of recorded information that are designed to prevent information interference, or what is known as ‘cross-talk‘.They were used on larger domestic video tapes such as U-Matic and VHS, but were dispensed with on smaller formats such as the Hi-8, which had a higher density of magnetic information in a small space, and used video heads with tilted gaps instead of guard bands.

The existence of SKA still doesn’t explain the pressing question: why develop new archival tape storage solutions and not hard drive storage?

Hard drives were embraced quickly because they take up less physical storage space than tape. Gone are the dusty rooms bursting with reel upon reel of bulky tape; hello stacks of infinite quick-fire data, whirring and purring all day and night. Yet when we consider the amount of energy hard drive storage requires to remain operable, the costs – both economic and ecological – dramatically increase.

The report compiled by the Clipper Group published in 2010 overwhelmingly argues for the benefits of tape over disk for the long term archiving of data. They state that ‘disk is more than fifteen times more expensive than tape, based upon vendor-supplied list pricing, and uses 238 times more energy (costing more than the all costs for tape) for an archiving application of large binary files with a 45% annual growth rate, all over a 12-year period.’

This is probably quite staggering to read, given the amount of investment in establishing institutional architecture for tape-less digital preservation. Such an analysis of energy consumption does assume, however, that hard drives are turned on all the time, when surely many organisations transfer archives to hard drives and only check them once every 6-12 months.

Yet due to the pressures of technological obsolescence and the need to remain vigilant about file operability, coupled with the functional purpose of digital archives to be quickly accessible in comparison with tape that can only be played back linearly, such energy consumption does seem fairly inescapable for large institutions in an increasingly voracious, 24/7 information culture. Of course the issue of obsolescence will undoubtedly affect super-storage-data tape cartridges as well. Technology does not stop innovating – it is not in the interests of the market to do so.

Perhaps more significantly, the archive world has not yet developed standards that address the needs of digital information managers. Henry Newman’s presentation at the Designing Storage Architectures 2013 conference explored the difficulty of digital data management, precisely due to the lack of established standards:

  • ‘There are some proprietary solutions available for archives that address end to end integrity;
  • There are some open standards, but none that address end to end integrity;
  • So, there are no open solutions that meet the needs of [the] archival community.’

He goes on to write that standards are ‘technically challenging’ and require ‘years of domain knowledge and detailed understanding of the technology’ to implement. Worryingly perhaps, he writes that ‘standards groups do not seem to be coordinating well from the lowest layers to the highest layers.’ By this we can conclude that the lack of streamlined conversation around the issue of digital standards means that effectively users and producers are not working in synchrony. This is making the issue of digital information management a challenging one, and will continue to be this way unless needs and interests are seen as mutual.

Other presentations at the recent annual meeting for Designing Storage Architectures for Digital Collections which took place on September 23-24, 2013 at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, also suggest there are limits to innovation in the realm of hard drive storage.  Gary Decad, IBM, delivered a presentation on the ‘The Impact of Areal Density and Millions of Square Inches of Produced Memory on Petabyte Shipments for TAPE, NAND Flash, and HDD Storage Class‘.

For the lay (wo)man this basically translates as the capacity to develop computer memory stored on hard drives. We are used to living in a consumer society where new improved gadgets appear all the time. Devices are getting smaller and we seem to be able buy more storage space for cheaper prices. For example, it now costs under £100 to buy a 3TB hard drive, and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to purchase hard drives which have less than 500GB storage space. Compared with last year, a 1TB hard drive was the top of the range and would have probably cost you about £100.

A 100TB storage unit in 2010, compared with a smaller hard drive symbolising 2020.

Does my data look big in this?

Yet the presentation from Gary Decad suggests we are reaching a plateau with this kind of storage technology – infinite memory growth and reduced costs will soon no longer be feasible. The presentation states that ‘with decreasing rates of areal density increases for storage components and with component manufactures reluctance to invest in new capacity, historical decreases in the cost of storage ($/GB) will not be sustained.’

Where does that leave us now? The resilience of tape as an archival solution, the energy implications of digital hard drive storage, the lack of established archival standards and a foreseeable end to cheap and easy big digital data storage, are all indications of the complex and confusing terrain of information management in the 21st century. Perhaps the Clipper report offers the most grounded appraisal: ‘the best solution is really a blend of disk and tape, but – for most uses – we believe that the vast majority of archived data should reside on tape.’ Yet it seems until the day standards are established in line with the needs of digital information managers, this area will continue to generate troubling, if intriguing, conundrums.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

Digitisation strategies – back up, bit rot, decay and long term preservation

In a blog post a few weeks ago we reflected on several practical and ethical questions emerging from our digitisation work. To explore these issues further we decided to take an in-depth look at the British Library’s Digital Preservation Strategy 2013-2016 that was launched in March 2013. The British Library is an interesting case study because they were an ‘early adopter’ of digital technology (2002), and are also committed to ensuring their digital archives are accessible in the long term.

Making sure the UK’s digital archives are available for subsequent generations seems like an obvious aim for an institution like the British Library. That’s what they should be doing, right? Yet it is clear from reading the strategy report that digital preservation is an unsettled and complex field, one that is certainly ‘not straightforward. It requires action and intervention throughout the lifecycle, far earlier and more frequently than does our physical collection (3).’

The British Library’s collection is huge and therefore requires coherent systems capable of managing its vast quantities of information.

‘In all, we estimate we already have over 280 terabytes of collection content – or over 11,500,000 million items – stored in our long term digital library system, with more awaiting ingest. The onset of non-print legal deposit legislation will significantly increase our annual digital acquisitions: 4.8 million websites, 120,000 e-journal articles and 12,000 e-books will be collected in the first year alone (FY 13/14). We expect that the total size of our collection will increase massively in future years to around 5 petabytes [that’s 5000 terabytes] by 2020.’

All that data needs to be backed up as well. In some cases valuable digital collections are backed up in different locations/ servers seven times (amounting to 35 petabytes/ 3500 terabytes). So imagine it is 2020, and you walk into a large room crammed full of rack upon rack of hard drives bursting with digital information. The data files – which include everything from a BWAV audio file of a speech by Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party after her election victory in 2015, to 3-D data files of cunieform scripts from Mesopotamia, are constantly being monitored by algorithms designed to maintain the integrity of data objects. The algorithms measure bit rot and data decay and produce further volumes of metadata as each wave of file validation is initiated. The back up systems consume large amounts of energy and are costly, but in beholding them you stand in the same room as the memory of the world, automatically checked, corrected and repaired in monthly cycles.

Such a scenario is gestured toward in the British Library’s long term preservation strategy, but it is clear that it remains a work in progress, largely because the field of digital preservation is always changing. While the British Library has well-established procedures in place to manage their physical collections, they have not yet achieved this with their digital ones. Not surprisingly ‘technological obsolescence is often regarded as the greatest technical threat to preserving digital material: as technology changes, it becomes increasingly difficult to reliably access content created on and intended to be accessed on older computing platforms.’ An article from The Economist in 2012 reflected on this problem too: ‘The stakes are high. Mistakes 30 years ago mean that much of the early digital age is already a closed book (or no book at all) to historians.’

Destroyed Hard Drive

There are also shorter term digital preservation challenges, which encompass ‘everything from media integrity and bit rot to digital rights management and metadata.’ Bit rot is one of those terms capable of inducing widespread panic. It refers to how storage media, in particular optical media like CDs and DVDs, decay over time often because they have not been stored correctly. When bit rot occurs, a small electric charge of a ‘bit’ in memory disperses, possibly altering program code or stored data, making the media difficult to read and at worst, unreadable. Higher level software systems used by large institutional archives mitigate the risk of such underlying failures by implementing integrity checking and self-repairing algorithms (as imagined in the 2020 digital archive fantasy above). These technological processes help maintain ‘integrity and fixity checking, content stabilisation, format validation and file characterisation.’

Archival Gold Disc

300 years, are you sure?

Preservation differences between analogue and digital media

The British Library isolate three main areas where digital technologies differ from their analogue counterparts. Firstly there is the issue of ‘proactive lifestyle management‘. This refers to how preservation interventions for digital data need to happen earlier, and be reviewed more frequently, than analogue data. Secondly there is the issue of file ‘integrity and validation.’ This refers to how it is far easier to make changes to a digital file without noticing, while with a physical object it is usually clear if it has decayed or a bit has fallen off. This means there are greater risks to the authenticity and integrity of digital objects, and any changes need to be carefully managed and recorded properly in metadata.

Finally, and perhaps most worrying, is the ‘fragility of storage media‘. Here the British Library explain:

‘The media upon which digital materials are stored is often unstable and its reliability diminishes over time. This can be exacerbated by unsuitable storage conditions and handling. The resulting bit rot can prevent files from rendering correctly if at all; this can happen with no notice and within just a few years, sometimes less, of the media being produced’.

A holistic approach to digital preservation involves taking and assessing significant risks, as well as adapting to vast technological change. ‘The strategies we implement must be regularly re-assessed: technologies and technical infrastructures will continue to evolve, so preservation solutions may themselves become obsolete if not regularly re-validated in each new technological environment.’

Establishing best practice for digital preservation remains a bit of an experiment, and different strategies such as migration, emulation and normalisation are tested to find out what model best helps counter the real threats of inaccessibility and obsolescence we may face in 5-10 years from now. What is encouraging about the British Library’s strategic vision is they are committed to ensuring digital archives are accessible for years to come despite the very clear challenges they face.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments