Storing Data for Centuries

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

August 28, 2008

4 Min Read
Network Computing logo

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.Bishop won't talk about other customers or who has made use of the HD-Rosetta archival preservation technology. But the Rosetta Project's blog post says an early prototype was launched into space in 2004 by the European Space Agency. Stashed away on the Rosetta Space Probe is a nickel disk with thousands of pages of language translations. The probe is slated to land on a comet sometime in 2014.

Religious and spiritual organizations have shown a lot of interest in the technology. "Many of these groups are very interested in preserving their data," Bishop says. And it can be done in a number of ways. "We put the Bible on a little cross, a quarter inch square. It is nearly 1,500 pages and you can see it very clearly under 200-power microscope. We can even do nano-jewelry.

"Eventually, I think this technology will end up in the county seat and the court house and in government agencies like the

FDA for keeping important records for the long term," he says. "That's why it was developed at Los Alamos."

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) developed the micro-etching approach as it was exploring ways to preserve data so it could withstand a nuclear attack or other man-made or natural disasters. The labs conducted extensive durability tests on the disks. Norsam licenses the technology from the labs.

For Bishop, the technology solves problems he witnessed throughout his early years. When he was in high school, he worked at the Library of Congress. "They had books that were disintegrating because of the acid in the paper," he says. In his 20s, he worked at a microfilm company and later got into book binding. "My background is archival preservation. So when I found this at Los Alamos I was excited," he says. "I call it permafilm [because] it is a much more permanent form of microfilm."His original plan was to create both high-density analog and digital disks. "We tried to develop both. Digital may happen years down the road,” he says. “But it is eye-readable data that is important to our culture now. This is a way of preserving the history of our culture.”

The approach isn't cheap, because each disk is created by hand. It can cost anywhere from 20 cents to $1 a page, "depending on the data. It takes time to write it with a focused ion beam. Copies are not as expensive," notes Bishop.

The cost means it isn't something you would consider for trivial or changing data. But this technology might be worth considering if you have information that needs to be available in a few centuries.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Byte and Switch's editors directly, send us a message.

  • Los Alamos National Laboratory0

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights