Challenges to Data Retention

By: Stephen J. Richards

Record keeping is almost as old as human existence! From cavemen painting on cave walls and the ancients writing on papyrus or on their tombs, we have detailed records of their time and their lives. Today, we have more sophisticated methods of record keeping that generally involve computers and digital records. But no one could have ever imagined the volume, density and complexity of the records of our times. Our emails are verbose and usually contain attachments; we can even send color photos, videos, presentations and documents halfway across the globe with a single click! Our presentations, spreadsheets and documents are larger, more colorful and include a lot more information.

Another important characteristic of digital records is the fact that they do not have a physical existence beyond their respective hard drive or storage device, thus making data retention and accessibility very difficult. Even more difficult is being able to accurately and swiftly reproduce these data when required.

As computer data cannot be managed without the help of computers or some set of machines and code, it is highly dependent on the version of software it was first created or stored on. Just imagining trying to open a MS Dos WordStar document on an Apple Macintosh iWork program! This represents only a minor challenge on a very small level. Imagine the thousands and thousands of emails, documents, presentations, financial summaries, databases etc. that any major institution runs through on a daily basis! There exist major concerns about being able to store, access and read such data in a timely and cost effective manner over time.
The challenges to data retention don't just end here for corporations, NGOs and even governmental and public service agencies. There are various rules and laws (Sarbanes-Oxley, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure) that stipulate strict guidelines on time, form and reproduction of data. The FRCP requires companies to have intimate knowledge of the data they store and how long it would take them to access such data.

Most companies were used to transferring data onto tape and storing them at offshore sites, sometimes even duplicating these tapes and storing them at multiple locations in case of any catastrophe and possible data loss or damage. However, the costs and resources in accessing data from storage tapes are almost prohibitively high. They used to be viable when data wasn't as vast and extensive and other sources of storage were a lot more expensive and bulky. Instead of moving emails, documents and other business records onto tape, companies may be advised to store data on disk systems for longer periods of time. Disks and disk systems lend themselves to easier access and reproduction. Coupled with the right archiving software, disk systems can reduce data retention, reproduction and management issues.

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