I spoke at the Princeton public library yesterday on the topic of archiving and preserving digital photos. It was a good opportunity to take a step back and look at the alternatives from a consumer perspective.
Here is a scorecard I created showing how three basic solutions for archiving photos and videos measure up.
|Keep on Your PC||Home RAID||Online Services|
|Survives device failure||No||Sorta||Yes|
|Media available when and where you need it||Sorta||Sorta||Yes|
|Deals with shifting formats||No||No||Yes|
|Easy to put data in||One Location||One Location||Yes|
|Easy to take data out||One Location||One Location||Yes|
|Around in 20 years?||No||No||Maybe|
The three approaches to archiving are leaving the data on your PC, running and maintaining a home RAID server, and subscribing to an online service, such as Phanfare. The assumption is that you want to preserve your full size original images and archival videos for at least 20 years.
Here is a quick explanation of the attributes:
- Geographically distributed – Is your data in more than one place, preferably in locations that are 20 miles apart or more, such that the loss of one location due to fire, theft or water, does not destroy your archive?
- Survives device failure – Hard drives fail, computers fail. What is the level of redundancy that the solution supports?
- Media available when and where you need it – Can you get to the media from a multitude of locations and at any time of day or night?
- Deals with shifting formats – As time goes by, media formats change. Does the solution bring your data forward to new formats, both physical and logical? For example, bring your video forwrad from AVI to h.264, or deal with the sunsetting of one form factor of hard drive for another?
- Easy to put data in – How much work does it take to add new data to the archive?
- Easy to take data out – How much work does it take to retrieve data from the archive?
- Secure – How sure can you be that the media will only be seen by people you authorize?
- Around in 20 yrs – Will the solution last 20 years, with a reasonable likelihood?
As you can see, online services score very well compared to Home RAID and the PC solution. The PC solution is pretty much guaranteed to result in the eventual loss of all your data, so it’s hard to really call it an archiving solution, but since so many people only keep their photos and videos on their PC, it is worth mentioning.
Basic home RAID solutions also provide few of the benefits of online storage. They are not geograpically distributed. Academically, they seem to provide protection against hard drive failures, but in practice, there are significant caveats. For example, a RAID server will tell you when it drops a disk from the set, but if you are not listening for that alert, or if you then go and replace the wrong drive, you will lose your data. Furthermore, it is not that unusual to lose entire RAID servers either because of double disk failures, failure in the RAID hardware itself, or misconfiguration.
Nothing deals with shifting formats better than online storage. Online services regularly copy data forward to new formats and replace hardware as it becomes obsolete. Using your own RAID solution, you will need to do this work yourself from time to time.
Looking at the question of security, I gave the edge to the home solutions. Security is a complicated issue. The best way to truly keep a secret is to tell nobody. The act of putting the information on any device lowers the security relative to keeping it in your head.
Your home is likely a soft target and if somebody wanted to get the data, it seems easier to get it from your home than from a secure data center. On the other hand, when you put data at an online service, you lose some level of control and the risk of accidental exposure of the media probably goes up.
Whether online services meet your security needs depends on your outlook about the sensitivity of the data. Personally, I do have a preference that my personal photos and videos not be public, but if they were exposed, no great harm would come to me and I would suffer no financial loss. On the other hand, if your photos are so sensitive that exposure could put you in danger, then you probably don’t want them online.
The only real question is whether you can trust an online service to be around in 20 years. Size alone does not necessarily indicate safety since some very large money losing photo and video sharing services have been shut down.
In terms of trusting an online service, I think it is important to see if their business model makes sense to you. If it seems to good to be true, or if you wonder how they can ever make money, then they probably don’t and it will end soon enough. Also, look for transparency. Unlike most services you consume, online storage is one where you are really in a partnership with the company. You are investing significant time and energy and need the company to be a good long term partner. As with any long term partner, transparency and honesty are important attributes. When your partner is overly secretive or harbors secrets, it is hard to trust them.
One option that Phanfare offers is to send you regular quarterly DVD backups of your data. While DVDs are not that archival in the long run, the likelihood that both we and you will simultaneously lose the data is vanishingly small, and hence you are always protected by being a redundant storage location for your own data. This DVD archive can help mitigate the risk that the online storage service does not survive. Again, I am not saying we are going away, only that you should look for services that don’t hold you hostage and plan for all scenarios.
If you look at costs, you will soon realize that online storage services cost more than keeping the media on your home computer or building your own RAID. But the solutions are far from equivalent. If you do an apples for apples comparison of building a personal archive that has all the same attributes as a service such as Phanfare, Phanfare will come out way ahead. Storing your media at an online service is hence the most expensive solution, but also the only true solution to the problem of archiving and preserving digital media.