Five Hundred Years: Data Storage Technology Goes Back to Reach the Future

By: Lee Rickwood

October 8, 2014

Data is “big” these days, and while data was once valued for its ability to help us recall yesterday, now data is a highly actionable asset for decision-making about tomorrow.

Among the many bids to protect our valuable digital assets and preserve our growing digital culture, a Norwegian technology company is re-imagining uses for a well-known, long-used storage medium.

A Norwegian firm says it can store and protect digital data for 500 years.

A Norwegian firm says it can store and protect digital data for 500 years.

Surely everything new is old again, with word that Piql AS is turning to film as a leading digital storage medium.

Fueled by a nearly $30 million research fund, with support from the European Union, Piql’s solution for digital preservation is to ‘make movies’, and bring emulsified photosensitive film into the digital era.

Photosensitive film (think of anything from microfilm to 35 mm and beyond) has been used as a preservation medium for decades; from the neighbourhood library to the university archives and the large Hollywood film studios.

Sure, colour film can fade quickly, but the underlying silver-halide chemistry on black and white film is remarkably stable. Manufactured properly with a solid substrate and chemical balance, and stored appropriately in terms of heat and humidity, film can be preserved for hundreds of years. Indeed, the earliest surviving photograph is nearly 200 years old.

Piql wants to extend that life expectancy, and meet the need for really, really long-term data preservation.

“Our goal is to keep valuable digital data securely preserved and accessible for 500 years,” Rune Bjerkestrand, the company’s managing director said, adding that microfilm has long been defined by static, tested technologies that adhere to accepted international standards, and has been rated with a life expectancy of more than half a millennium!

Another potential advantage for this medium, owing to the rapid pace of technological change and backward compatibility issues, is that the film Piql is using can be read, unlike their digital counterparts, by the human eye (using light and magnification).

That’s just one key differentiator film has that other long-term data storage options do not.

Media like magnetic tape (and LTO) can suffer from physical degradation, and a loss of particulate matter (where the stored data resides), over time; optical discs (like DVD or Blu-ray) can also suffer from physical damage, compatibility issues and data corruption; hard disk drives can have individual sectors that are bad or corrupt, and even the entire drive can be prone to physical failure. Flash or other non-mechanical storage cards have read/write limitations, while emerging storage choices ‘in the cloud’ also come with security, privacy, access and even jurisdictional issues.

What’s left? Piql says film, and the irony of using yesterday’s analog technology to preserve today’s digital data is not lost on the company.

Digital data is written onto high resolution film.

Digital data is written onto high resolution film.

In fact, its technology solution takes advantage of the optical nature of film to visually document instructions on how to use its system and retrieve data from its process, in readable text right on the film, so all the information that’s needed to decode Piql’s data records is available to anyone who might need them in the future.

The source code for the decoder is stored on the film at the beginning of the reel in both human readable and digital form. File format specs can also be written on the film in both human readable and digital form.

Photosensitive film is also seen as “a true WORM” storage option – it is a “write once, read many” medium, ensuring that data cannot be manipulated, modified or deleted once written.

The company uses a high-precision industrial grade data recorder, the piqlWriter, to write digital files and related metadata onto photosensitive film at speeds up to 40 MB/s, but any compatible digital scanner and available open source decoding software can be used to read the data. It’s written using the same kind of error correction as most other storage technologies, and it is searchable in much the same way other digital records are.

Data storage package from Piql.

Data storage package from Piql.

The film reel even gets extra protection a tested piqlBox.

The company’s products, services and systems are available in Europe, the Middle East and South Africa; as press time, no Canadian partners or channels have been announced.


# # #
submitted by Lee Rickwood



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *