Many people have a box in the attic in which they keep items that are precious to them. Unique and irreplaceable objects, collected throughout a lifetime: wedding photographs, sports trophies, academic certificates, the book a grandmother gave them, clippings of past triumphs covered in the local paper. A box in the attic is a low maintenance and stable archive for objects that, although one might not need to look at everyday, would be devastating to lose.

Many companies have data that is, in more practical terms, just as precious to them: customer records, original contracts, emails with suppliers, employee pension documents.

Instead of, figuratively, tucking this important data away in a box in the attic, many companies leave it scattered around their house: in their SAN, on application servers, personal laptops, and on backup tapes sitting in a filing cabinet. Although a company may not care as deeply for their data as an individual cares for the book their grandmother gave them, it is time that they started caring just a little bit more.

There are many reasons why it is important for companies to be able to safely hold electronic records over a long time period. Clearly, it is bad practice to lose an employee’s pension record, or be unable to look over old but still current business contracts and their supporting email chains.

On top of bad practice, it is also quite likely to be illegal. Data protection legislation and a growing body of industry specific regulations bestow on companies the obligation to safely manage data archives for many years. Archived data needs to be quickly accessible for discovery, and must maintain its authenticity to ensure it hasn’t been altered.

Once data is no longer actively being used companies must decide if they need to keep it and for how long according to best practice, legal obligation and regulatory compliance.

If it is not needed, it should be deleted to free up space on their primary storage systems. However, if it is still required, companies are likely to want to move the data to a lower cost and lower maintenance archiving system.

The archiving systems commonly available today are based on three different technologies: hard disk drive, tape and optical.

Hard disk drive systems, for example, RAID storage, are a popular archiving choice for businesses as they are usually relatively easy to attach to a network, have fast access speeds and unit costs have fallen, making them relatively cheap to purchase.

However, as a spinning mechanical system, which needs to be powered at all times, these systems will eventually break and can cost a considerable amount to power and cool over their lifetime. Additionally, data is written to the magnetic disk can become unstable leading to data corruption over time. These physical traits demand that data stored on magnetic disk be protected through a secondary backup procedure, adding extra cost and administration.

Following our box in the attic analogy, this type of archive would require us to visit the box everyday to make sure it was OK, check the contents to see that they were still there and leave the light on, permanently.

Magnetic tape is able to store huge amounts of data in a compact space and once written does not require power to maintain. Tape is a popular choice for archiving, though does have some significant drawbacks that do not lend themselves to the ideal of archiving, as represented by our box.

Anyone who has fought to restore data from an old backup tape will tell you just how unreliable magnetic tape can be. It wears with use, can easily be damaged and must be stored in carefully maintained temperature and humidity conditions.

As with magnetic disk, data stored on tape is also subject to corruption so should be frequently monitored if used for long-term data storage.

Though in comparison to hard drives, and to follow our analogy, a tape archive allows the attic light to be turned off, the box itself will still need regular visits to make sure everything is OK.

The final category of archiving technology is optical. In many ways optical most matches our ideal archive as represented by the box in the attic. Using laser technology, data is stored on a disk by changing the physical structure of the disk itself.

Once data is written it is extremely stable and cannot be altered, ensuring both record authenticity and data integrity. Like tape systems, optical disks do not need to be continuously powered so are extremely energy efficient. Optical disks come in a variety of formats so it is important to select one that is designed for specifically for professional data storage. UDO (Ultra Density Optical) is the only optical format with a proven track record for long-term data archiving.

Many organisations are far from perfect when it comes to securely archiving their data. However, with a near universal move to electronic records, companies are now increasingly required to maintain data records for a very long time, often many decades. Like the box in the attic, the best systems are those that simply get on with their role unaided, cost little to maintain, and preserve the family treasures in perfect order for as long as possible, so your data, like the book your grandmother gave you, can be passed to the next generation.

Steve Tongish is the director of marketing EMEA at Plasmon Data, a professional archival storage provider