'Personal' Digital Mass Storage Systems - A Viable Solution for Small Institutions and Developing Countries
by Dietrich Schüller
In 1989/90, Digital Mass Storage Systems (DMSSs) were discussed for the first time by sound archivists (1) but it was the Tonmeistertagung of 1992 which proved to be the catalyst for German radio sound archivists to start pilot projects to explore the potential of such systems for sound archiving. By the mid-nineties this way of safeguarding audio materials had moved from "science-fiction" to become "state of the art"(2). The Digital Mass Storage movement has also been joined by some national sound archives. Video archivists have also begun to move in this direction, although - due to the very large storage requirements - few installations have been started.
After one decade, it is clear that the concept has been accepted and the systems installed so far have proved the viability of the technology. Mass Storage Systems are very efficient tools in bringing new dimensions of access to sound archives while simultaneously solving the problems of checking the data integrity of the digitally stored contents. It should not be forgotten, however, that the migration of great quantities of audio data to new systems has not yet been undertaken on a large scale.
The number of installations is, so far, small and the costs are large. All current systems are individually assembled and tailor-made to meet the specific needs of each archive. Even small systems require an initial investment of at least US $100,000 with additional, considerable, annual costs for licence fees and support. Hardware is the one of the less expensive components of the overall cost. The software determines the total price to a strong and ever increasing degree. One reason is the individual adaptation of the metadata to the system design. Another cost-intensive factor is the software for managing the 'eternal life cycle' of the stored information. This software is actually the brain of the system. The reason for these high costs is the low number of systems installed so far. In addition, software developers have been spoilt by the typical clientele who have purchased the existing large storage systems - banks, insurance companies, internet providers and defence departments. To them the purchase costs of such systems are of relatively minor importance.
However, the era in which DMSSs are solely large investments made by wealthy radio and national archives may soon be at an end. There is an impressive number of potential clients who are in need of 'small' DMSSs. Typical are the many small sound archives and music libraries that have a collection of between several hundred and a few thousand hours of material. Today, these archives are either forced to stick to the conventional, expensive and space consuming method of using analogue tape for archival masters, or to take preliminary steps towards digitisation by using R-DAT or CD-R as intermediary carriers. The production of conventional analogue archival tapes is a proven procedure that is employed, however, at the cost of accepting the loss of original quality when used to safeguard digital originals. The use of intermediary digital carriers, on the other hand, is only acceptable if quality checks of such carriers are made manually, immediately after their production and at regular intervals thereafter, to check their data integrity and to organise transfer onto new carriers, whenever further retrievability is at risk. Unfortunately, such stringent procedures are the exception rather than routine. Therefore, most current digitisation activities gamble with the retrievability of their holdings. This situation will not improve with the advent of new data carriers such as the DVD, or whatever format comes next.
Beyond applications in sound archives, small DMSSs have a world-wide potential for applications within innumerable research and teaching institutions which, typically, deal with much higher quantities of digital data than are normally generated in offices. This is especially the case where digital image files and multimedia data are handled. Museums, art history institutions, architects, photographers: they all would profit enormously if they could manage the safeguarding of, and access to, their data in this entirely new way. DMMS also provide a viable solution for what are called electronic documents (3).
Let us imagine a scalable system which starts at a few hundred Gb of storage space and which can expand at the annual growth rate of the user. Access times of a few minutes are not a problem to the users. Simple and robust tape drives with low service costs and proven reliability, e.g. DLT, can be used. Standardised hardware/software packages running under universal operating systems such as Windows NT would drastically reduce prices. This would create systems affordable for literally everybody who would benefit from such a solution today. It can be assumed that within a period of a few years, the price of a basic version of such a system will be available for a sum which audio archives used to spend on a professional analogue archiving unit.
DMMSs would be enormously beneficial for developing countries, especially those with hot and humid climatic conditions. Today, conventional archiving of discrete data carriers of any format is affordable, in practice, only in places with a temperate climate. Even in such places, most of the archives have to use machine controlled air conditioning. Under tropical conditions, only a few, rich institutions can afford effective temperature and humidity control throughout the year. In addition, this is an enormous waste of energy. The majority of audiovisual archives in tropical countries will lose their holdings prematurely because, due to financial constraints, the necessary storage conditions cannot be maintained. This is especially deplorable in those countries that have a strong, orally transmitted culture. Such cultures can only be documented adequately by using audiovisual technologies. The space occupied by a DMSS is small compared to that occupied by a conventional archive and, therefore, can be kept at favourable climatic conditions with comparatively low energy consumption. Thus, DMSSs are an ideal and viable solution for the safeguarding of audiovisual holdings in tropical countries.
We find ourselves in a situation similar to that of two decades ago when the transition from mainframe computers to individual micro-computers and PCs took place. Today, the time is ripe for 'Personal' Mass Storage Systems which provide the solution to the needs of an enormous number of users from different fields in business, research, and professional archiving. This does not mean a complete decentralisation in the storage of large amounts of digital data because safeguarding of cultural and intellectual data of national and even world-wide importance calls for uncompromising measures. Big computer centres will, therefore, have to function as backup repositories for small decentralised storage units.
Technically, "Personal" Mass Storage Systems are readily available today. Their practical implementation, however, is obstructed by the high initial investment and annual running costs - mainly in the provision of software.
The ball is now with the industry. The company that grasps the enormous potential of these new markets first will have a considerable advantage over its competitors.
1) The first traces of this idea can be found in the report on the Second UNESCO Consultation, Vienna, May 1989. The first broad public debate within the realm of audiovisual archives took place at the Joint Technical Symposium in Ottawa 1990 (Schüller 1992). The principles expressed at that time are still valid. The view, however, that lower sampling and quantization rates than those used for modern recordings would be sufficient for historical sound recordings is outdated.
2) It was Albrecht Häfner and the Arbeitsgruppe Archivwesen of the ARD, the union of German public broadcasters, under the chairmanship of Andreas Matzke, who pushed the idea forward. Thanks to their efforts, the archiving of linear, unreduced signals became state of the art in broadcast archives at a time, in the early nineties, when the use of data reduction was widely suggested.
3) It must be understood, however, that storing electronic text documents may have an additional challenging dimension. The safeguarding of the original formatting of a text may be a desirable aspect for many documents, e.g. electronic "manu"scripts of writers, politicians, etc. These problems do not occur with audio documents. Cf Rothenberg 1999.
Häfner, Albrecht 1994: The Introduction of Digital Mass Storage Systems in Radio Broadcasting. A Report on the Progress Within the ARD. In: IASA Journal 3, 50-55.
Heitmann, Jürgen 1996: Zukünftige Archivierungssysteme. In: Fernseh- und Kinotechnik 50/7, 374-380.
IASA Technical Committee - The Safeguarding of the Audio Heritage: Ethics, Principles and Preservation Strategies (= Standards, Recommended Practices and Strategies, IASA-TC 03).
Rothenberg, Jeff 1995: Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents. In: Scientific American 272, 42-45.
Rothenberg, Jeff 1999: Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technological Foundation for Digital Preservation. European Commission on Preservation and Access. Amsterdam.
Schüller, Dietrich 1989: "Second UNESCO Consultation" im Mai 1989 in Wien. Ein Kurzbericht. In: Das Audiovisuelle Archiv 25, 41-44.
Schüller, Dietrich 1992: Towards the Automated "Eternal" Sound Archive. In: Boston, G. (Ed.), Archiving the Audiovisual Heritage. Proceedings of the Third Joint Technical Symposium, Ottawa 1990, 106-110.
Schüller, Dietrich 1993: Auf dem Weg zum "ewigen", vollautomatischen Schallarchiv. In: 17. Tonmeistertagung Karlsruhe 1992, Bericht. München, 384-391.
Schüller, Dietrich 1994: Strategies for the Safeguarding of Audio and Video Materials in the Long Term. In: IASA Bulletin 4, 58-65.
Schüller, Dietrich 1996: Preservation of Audio and Video Materials in Tropical Countries. In: IASA Journal 7, 35-45.
Schüller, Dietrich 1999 Preserving the Facts for the the Future: Priciples and Practices for the Transfer of Analog Audio Documents into the Digital Domain. Paper read at the 106th Convention of the Audio Engineering Society (AES), Munich, May 1999. AES Preprint 4886.
Dietrich Schüller is Director of the Phonogrammarchiv at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna.
(This paper was prepared for the Annual IASA-Seapavaa Conference, Singapore, 2-7 July 2000 and first published in IASA Journal n° 16 - December 2000, pages 52-55). It is a revised English version of: 'Digitale Massenspeicher: Von der Pilotphase zur Einführung auf breiter Front'. - Das Audiovisuelle Archiv (45/1999) pp 73-77)
Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
Axel Plathe, UNESCO Communication and Information Sector