Feb 17 2023
Data Center

What is Bit Rotting and Will it Affect K-12 Data Storage?

As K–12 schools gather and store more data, they face an increased risk of losing information to data decay.

Data storage is critical to modern education, particularly in K–12 schools. With the increasing use of technology in the classroom, the amount of data being generated and stored is growing rapidly, and that brings an issue schools must consider: bit rot. 

Also known as data decay, bit rot is the gradual corruption of data that occurs over time. This phenomenon can lead to the loss of important information and significantly impact schools’ data storage systems. 

K–12 IT leaders must understand the concept of bit rot and how it could affect data storage so they can take appropriate steps to ensure schools’ data remains safe and secure.

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What Is Bit Rotting?

Bit rotting is the corruption or inaccessibility of stored data. “At a fundamental level, bit rot refers to the deterioration of data on storage media,” says Leo Volpe, HDD and SSD qualification engineer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. “Bit rot can occur with almost any form of media — hard disk and solid-state drives, flash drives, USB sticks, memory cards, and CDs, DVDs and tapes.”

Bit rot happens when the individual bits that make up a digital file are altered or corrupted. This can result in data loss, making it impossible to access or properly use the stored information. Typically, this process happens slowly over time.

Physical degradations, which affect hard drives or solid-state drives, are one of the main causes of bit rot. Over time, these devices can become damaged due to wear and tear, or they may suffer from issues such as magnetic interference or electrical problems.

“Bit rot is the gradual erosion of the physical surface of the storage media,” says Chip George, public sector vice president for Nutanix.

Software bugs are another factor that can contribute to bit rot, particularly in older or poorly maintained systems. For example, if a software program isn’t designed to handle a certain type of data, it may corrupt the bits that make up that data.

LEARN MORE: Legacy tech in K–12 schools opens the door for cybercriminals.

How Might Bit Rot Affect K–12 Schools? 

Bit rot can have significant consequences for K–12 schools, which risk losing valuable educational resources and information. In a school setting, bit rot can affect both students and teachers, as well as the administration and other staff responsible for school management.

“The primary concern for school districts is the reliability of systems and applications required for school operations and the long-term storage of student and administrative records,” Volpe says. “Administrative data and historical student records must be preserved, which is why we see school districts investing increasingly in enterprise-grade storage arrays and data infrastructure.”

Furthermore, bit rot can harm students. When students use digital devices for learning and their work is stored on devices that are affected by bit rot, they may lose access to their projects or assignments, causing frustration and negatively impacting their education.

Besides the loss of educational materials, bit rot can also affect school management. If important administrative and financial records became corrupted or unreadable, school officials will find it hard to make informed decisions.

Where Are Schools Storing Data and for How Long?

Schools store data in various places, including local computers, on-premises servers and the cloud. The specific storage location a school uses depends on several factors, such as the type of data being stored, the size of the school and the budget available for data storage and management.

Schools may store student records, financial information and administrative data on local servers or computers. This allows authorized school personnel to easily access the data while ensuring the security of sensitive information.

RELATED: Schools modernize on-premises data centers with hyperconverged infrastructure.

In recent years, more educational institutions have started using cloud storage systems. These solutions allow schools to store data in remote servers, which can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection. This can be particularly useful for schools with large campuses because it allows for centralized data management and secure access to important information.

“It is important to note that cloud storage is not immune to bit rot, as it also relies on hard disk drives and solids-state drives,” says George.

The length of time that schools store data depends on the type of information and the requirements set by local, state and federal laws. Schools are typically required to keep student records for a minimum of five to seven years, while financial records may need to be kept several years longer. In some cases, such as transcripts and diplomas, schools may need to store data indefinitely.

Leo Volpe
The best strategy is not to try to prevent bit rot, but to build a multilayered approach to minimize the risks and implications of data loss, regardless of the cause.”

Leo Volpe HDD and SSD Qualification Engineer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

What Can Protect Schools from Bit Rot? 

“The best strategy is not to try to prevent bit rot, but to build a multilayered approach to minimize the risks and implications of data loss, regardless of the cause,” Volpe says. However, if bit rot does occur, it’s essential to implement a comprehensive data management and protection strategy.

This can involve several steps, including:

  • Regular backups: Backing up important data, such as student records, financial information and administrative data, ensures protection against bit rot. School IT admins can do this by creating backups on external storage devices or by using cloud-based backup solutions.
  • Reliable storage media: Schools should use storage media with proven reliability, such as solid-state drives or external hard drives, to store important data. Such devices are less susceptible to physical wear and tear, which can contribute to bit rot.
  • Data checks: Regularly checking data for corruption or damage can help schools detect bit rot in its early stages, which allows them to take action to prevent it from affecting important records. This can be done using software tools that check for and report any issues with stored data.
  • File formatting: Schools should store data in file formats that are resistant to bit rot, such as nonproprietary formats like PDF or plain text.
  • Data replication: Replicating data across multiple storage devices can offer additional protection against bit rot. This ensures important data is available even if one of the storage devices becomes damaged.

What School Personnel Need to Do Versus What Companies Do

School staff and data storage companies both play important roles in protecting schools’ data from bit rot. The steps each need to take can vary based on the size and complexity of districts and their data.

School personnel should regularly back up important data, use reliable storage media such as solid-state drives and regularly check for data corruption or damage. These simple steps can help protect student records, financial information and administrative data from the detrimental effects of bit rot.

UP NEXT: How do speed and storage affect mobile technologies in schools?

Vendors, on the other hand, should have a comprehensive approach to data management because they typically deal with larger amounts of data and a wider range of data types. Their data management strategy should include regular backups using enterprise-grade storage solutions and replicating data across multiple storage devices.

Bit Rot Threatens the Integrity of Data on Storage Media

As technology continues to evolve, the risk of bit rot will only increase, making it imperative for K–12 schools to take proactive steps to safeguard their data from rot. Regular backups, reliable storage media and comprehensive data management strategies can ensure important data remains accessible and secure, protecting the interests of students, staff and administrators.

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