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Storing Data for Centuries

Analog, not digital, may be best way to preserve crucial data for the very long haul

Storage managers understand the difficult challenge of preserving data for the long haul. Paper fades. Tapes break. Disks become flaky. Few storage technologies can stand up to natural or other types of disasters. Technologies and protocols evolve or are replaced by entirely new types of storage. Do you still have important data stored on floppy disks? Probably not.

There really arent many options for very long-term backup and storage. Most IT managers are resigned to migrating crucial data from one storage medium to another as technology evolves. One company, however, Norsam Technologies Inc. of Hillsboro, Ore., offers an unusual approach to preserving data, one that isn't of much use to enterprise IT managers right now. But that may change if the technology evolves.

Norsam uses a focused ion beam to micro-etch human-readable analog information on nickel disks that are designed to last thousands of years, perhaps as long as 10,000 years, according to Norsam president John Bishop.

"We can put more than 100,000 pages onto a 2-inch square surface," says Bishop. "However, that's going to require an expensive reading system. But we can do it so it can be read with a 500-power microscope or a 200-power microscope. Two hundred is much more common. It all depends on what people want."

Earlier this month, Norsam delivered five prototype three-inch disks to the Long Now Foundation, a non-profit organization formed to "creatively foster long-term thinking," according to its Website. The Rosette disk, part of Long Now's Rosetta Project, contains 13,500 pages of information, including the first three books of Genesis in 1,500 languages, guides to understanding and pronouncing each language, and meta-data indexes. It requires a 750-power optical microscope to read the data. The goal is to preserve the information so it can be read centuries from now. A blog post on the organization's Website provides a detailed description of the project and photos of the disks.

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