Nov 24 2008

Phase-Change Archiving

Librarians learn about future storage solutions.

The future of digital archiving for university and college libraries could lie in phase-change technology, according to Chris Wood, chief technology officer for storage and data management at Sun Microsystems.

Phase-change memory (PCM) technology, is the most likely successor to aging magnetic-storage technology for librarians and archivists charged with preserving a widening array of materials at universities and colleges, says Wood, who recently spoke at a gathering of university librarians and archivists in Baltimore.

Phase-change technology relies on materials that change characteristics when exposed to heat (rather than electrical charges, as do current storage media), and its development is progressing rapidly, says Wood. PCM will be a particularly attractive alternative to flash memory for archival storage, because flash drives wear out after a few thousand uses. With some applications, that 1,000-hour limit might be reached in a matter of hours, he says.

University and college librarians and archivists are faced with growing responsibilities for long-term storage of documents, says Mike Keller, university librarian and director of information resources at Stanford University. This includes not only traditional media such as books and historical documents, but an increasing array of university-created multimedia and imaged materials, he says.

The responsibility for archiving this lode of digital data (and choosing which technology to use) is still being hammered out on college campuses by university librarians and archivist, faculty and IT departments, says Keller, who is one of the founding members of Sun Technologies’ Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group, or PASIG, which hosted the meeting in Baltimore.

Older magnetic storage technologies, which include tapes and disks, are reaching the end of their technological capabilities. In spite of some new developments that can increase their storage capacities and capabilities, Wood says those technologies have almost hit their limits physically. “Disk density is slowing. Tracks per drive are becoming a challenge. The more tracks are condensed, the more possibility of inaccuracies in the stored data,” he says.

The capacity of optical storage technology (DVDs and CDs) is growing, but improvements have slowed significantly, Wood says, blunting cost effectiveness and leading users to seek alternatives.