Data Rot

By Deane Barker on March 28, 2009

Should You Worry About Data Rot?: Fascinating interview about how to store data for a long, long time. Data storage formats go bad, after a while, and you have to keep copying your data to new mediums.

Data rot refers mainly to problems with the medium on which information is stored. Over time, things like temperature, humidity, exposure to light, being stored not-very-good locations like moldy basements, make this information very difficult to read.

The second aspect of data rot is actually finding the machines to read them. And that is a real problem. If you think of the 8-track tape player, for example, basically the only way you can find 8-track cartridges is in a flea market or a garage sale.

Eventually, you get back to the oldest medium:

[…] consider paper as an archival medium. Some paper we have has lasted thousands of years. If Moses had gotten the Ten Commandments on a floppy disk, it would never have made it to today.

Perhaps the best advance in archival formats would be to develop the ultimate OCR font? A font that’s so OCR-friendly that you’d be able to convert printed text back into bits even thousands of years down the road? Could we bar code everything?

I love this bit:

Thomas Edison built a system, a Dictaphone, that used a wax cylinder to record your voice. And when you wanted to erase it, you treated it like a lathe; you would get this sharp metal rod and scrape off the wax until it was smooth again, and then you could re-use it. (LAUGHTER) And, you know, strangely enough, we can still read those. They’re 100 years old.



  1. I’ve been hauling a grocery bag of 5 1/4 Apple II floppy disks around with me for 25 years. Last weekend, I finally attempted to transfer the data to my Windows PC (using an Apple IIgs and frankenstein-serial cable). After nearly 8 hours of transferring, all 94 disks were completed. Each one fired up just fine in an emulator.

    Twenty-five year old floppies — not one single transfer error, not one! I burned CDs some three years ago that are already starting to fail!

  2. Yes, I think so far mostly the biggest problem is antiquated machinery – more than failing media. Mostly.

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