Views from Phanfare CEO and Co-founder Andrew Erlichson

Link Archiving and preserving digital photos and videos

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
Geographically Distributed No No Yes
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
Secure Yes Yes Pretty secure
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.

  • jonschultz

    I would expect you to be biased towards online services, but your post is too biased :)

    My first premise is that most people don't archive digital photos (or music) or don't really need to. Storage is inexpensive, so most people can keep all their digital photos on an internal drive or external drive. But people do need to backup.

    There are more options or variations than the three you list. For example, consider using two external hard drives, one that you keep at home and one that you keep in another house (family or friend). You can backup/image your main drive to the external drive, and swap the onsite/offite drives every so often:

    Geographically distributed: yes
    Survives device failure: yes
    Media available: yes
    Deals with shifting formats: sorta (if you choose to convert), but JPEG will be around for a long time
    Easy to put data in: yes
    Easy to take data out: yes
    Secure: yes (if you trust your family or friend)
    Around in 20 years: yes (purchase different external device when the time comes)
    Less expensive than online storage: yes

    There are negatives to online storage that are not listed:
    - Time and work needed to upload the initial several GB of data (except for Amazon)
    - Time needed to download several GB of data (when data needs to be restored)
    - Changed files names and folder structure (Phanfare changes filenames)

    I think we can agree on the following:
    - good backups are a necessity
    - online storage is a valid backup option
    - people should use more than one backup option (for example, online + external drive)
    - with some work Phanfare could be a much better backup option for digital photos :)

  • erlichson

    I agree your solution is viable, but I don't think its all that easy to keep two drives around, swap them periodically, keep them in sync, move the to a friend, etc. and you don't get network access to the data (unless you are also configuring VPNs) or transfer to facebook, or flickr, etc. The online service enables much more functionality around your media. But your solution is cheaper (not including your time) so if your solution meets all your requirements, its a better deal.

    I don't know how you are valuing your time, but if I want to do a monthly backup, which by the way means that I could lose 1 month of data at any given moment if I don't use RAID disks, and if that backups takes me an hour per month, including getting the disk from a friend, etc, then that is 12 hours per year. Even at $10/hr, that is $120.

    You are right, Phanfare could be a better backup service. Here is what is missing:

    + a good way to get a really large data set up to Phanfare with a minimum of work.

    + Better support for meta data (tagging is not in the product)

    + support for RAW files.

    I think we will get to all these within 12 months.

  • jonschultz

    I should have added that I also use an online service (JungleDisk/Amazon) as an additional backup for some files, so I'm not against online services. In fact, I'd be glad to use Phanfare as an additional backup for photos when the features you list above (especially #1) are in place. Thanks for the good news!
    Are there any plans to always keep the original filename when photos are downloaded? That's another big thing keeping me from using Phanfare for more photos.

  • erlichson

    we keep the original filename..its just a bug that we don't return it to you on download. it is on our DVD archive disks, I believe.

    we do have a bulk uploader today in the pc client that reads your hard disk directory structure and sucks a bunch of data in to phanfare, but its not reliable so we are going to pull it and then fix it.

    i think all these things get addressed within about 12 months with lots of other great features coming before then. thanks for your feedback. i hope we can win your business.

  • decisionengine

    I am scared to put data online. Will your company be around for another 100 years?. I want even my grand children to see the photos. Is your company profitable like smugmug?. what is the transition plan for your company in case the founders are no more with it / no more vc funding.

  • erlichson

    I don't think anyone has built a company with sufficient resources and brand to guarantee that the company will be around 100 years. And I think this represents the main opportunity from our side.

    We don't disclose our financials as a private company, but I would like to get to the point where we do disclose them completely because I believe that when you engage a company to archive it is a partnership between the you and the company.

    What I suggest for people who are nervous is that they also subscribe to our DVD backup program and get quarterly DVDs of their media. The chance that we and you lose the archive simultaneously is very small.

    At this point, as a consumer, you need to look at the integrity of the founders, the background of the board members and the overall transparency of the company.

    BTW, I think SmugMug is a great company and a worthy competitor.

  • Vinod

    Great explanations and spirit!. I signed up as a premium member 5 minutes ago. I think if you introduce a referral program, your service may get more publicity. Whatever, I found Phanfare to be the best solution for my photo + video storage solutions.

  • erlichson

    Great to have you as a customer!

    We may bring back a referral program. We don't want people spamming newsgroups and blogs with referral codes so need to figure out the best way to structure it.

  • erlichson

    Correction, we fixed the bug on the filename issue. When you download an image, you get the original filename that you used to upload, even for images that were uploaded while the bug was in place.

  • DiFferRentsPace

    Phanfare's qtrly DVD bakup is only a data-dump by album name, correct? What's possible, down the road, to get the complete “story-board” rendition on Phanfare's DVD bakup i.e. full slideshow in created sequence including music, comments, timing, etc.?

  • erlichson

    DVDs that play in consumer entertainment DVD players are formatted differently than DVDs that contain data. Our product is a data DVD with lots of rich meta data.

    The rendered slideshow itself is not on there. We might try to get it on there in the future but there are some technical challenges around that.

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