The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) Data Management Forum has just reported the results of a landmark study that looked at the current state of long-term storage - that is, data stored for more than 10 years. Some disturbing results jump out of this study. They suggest that we live in a digital version of the Dark Ages.

A whopping 80% of the 276 organsations included in this study reported a need to retain electronic records for more than 50 years.

OK, so let's start with a 50-year retention benchmark. How many of you out there actually think you can do 50 years of electronic records retention given current technology? Without data loss? Next question: How many of you think that you can do more than three data migrations from one storage medium to the next without data loss? According to the study, the answer is very few.

So there's a big gap here. SNIA's Data Management Forum wants to start filling that gap with a long-term data-retention reference model, storage that "heals" itself over time, and a new self-describing, self-contained data format standard (SD-SCDF; download PDF) that will stand the test of time. There's more information at SNIA's 100 Year Archive website.

One more result from the study had me staring off into space. Slightly more than 50% of the 276 organisations surveyed reported the need for "permanent" storage. What might fall into the permanent category?

I thought of the US's founding fathers writing the Constitution and wondered what that process would be like if they were all Microsoft customers. For sure, they'd print out the final version for all to see - on parchment maybe? But what about all the draft versions and emails back and forth - in short, all the supporting documentation that clue us in on their states of mind and tell us what they really intended? I dare say those files would be gone forever. And of those that remained, would any modern program still be able to read or use those formats? (How many word processing formats from the 1970s or 1980s are still usable?)

We rarely if ever think of saving our digitised thoughts for the sake of posterity. But for the sake of historians, lawmakers, sociologists and scientists yet to be born, we should.

John Webster is the principal IT adviser at research firm Illuminata. He is also the author of numerous articles and white papers on a wide range of topics and is the co-author of the book Inescapable Data: Harnessing the Power of Convergence.