Insight: Secure Your Digital Assets

Gary Schnitz
Chair, Journal Management Board

Gary Schnitz photo

With the new year comes an opportunity for us to make some changes and resolutions as they relate to some of our work habits. Without question, we must become even more efficient and productive in 2009. No resolution may be as important in this leaner economy as properly backing up important data on your computer. This, of course, also includes your laptop, those small pocket hard drives, Flash memory sticks, and camera cards. Burning your valuable files to CDs or creating data DVDs may offer an additional line of defense against data loss, but this solution alone is not without issues of physical damage. Most of us realize the importance of securing our electronic data; now the time has come to actually do it.

Data is King
We wouldn’t think of driving without adequate auto insurance, or being without insurance on our other personal property. Yet some of us still have hundreds of one-of-a-kind digital photographs, beautifully layered Photoshop® illustrations, or even animations (gulp) just sitting there waiting for some electronic catastrophe. Computer failure and data loss are an inescapable reality for most; don’t let it become a true disaster for you. “Disaster” is a very nondescript term that could mean a weather-related Katrina-type event that wipes out your studio, or something on a smaller scale like a flooded basement studio or simple equipment failure. The lost productivity and downtime resulting from an event like this can be lengthy, as you attempt to salvage images, rebuild your marketing files, reconstitute your customer database, and restore your business operations.

Furthermore, actually recovering electronic data along with your image files following such a disaster may not only be expensive, but perhaps impossible. In my opinion, internal hard drives can be discussed most often in binary terms. They either “work fine,” or they “don’t work at all.” Your data is “safe,” or it’s “lost.” As creators, we’re in “good shape” with our stored data, or we’re “doomed.” There is really no middle ground here; our data is either “on” or sadly “eternally off.”

Proper risk management requires an analysis of the threats facing your digital assets. Most of us have years of miscellaneous Word documents, association reports, grant proposals, business plans, and spread sheets that sit “unsecured” on our main computers. Without question, some of our computer’s internal hard drives may be reaching their life expectancy, and these drives may fail anytime without warning. The cost of recreating these photos, medical illustrations, written proposals, and manuscripts would be enormous.  It is vital to understand the importance and value of your digital assets and image library before a loss. Your business and livelihood depend on this data.

Suggested Hardware Solutions
At the risk of this sounding more like an ad, I’d like to suggest the following. A 500-gigabyte LaCie external (desktop) hard drive with a quadruple interface for full PC/Mac compatibility will cost a mere $159.99 USD. This particular LaCie d2 Quadra Hard Disk features fast transfer rates, a sturdy aluminum heat sink, ergonomic design, plug & play compatibility, and it is fully cross-platform compatible. The quadruple interface was designed to appeal to a broad range of potential customers and refers to USB, FireWire 400, FireWire 800, and eSATA ports. Simply put, this box will work with just about anything you’ve got (or will get three or four years from now). This unit is fully compatible with third party backup software, and for Mac users this unit works well with Apple’s Time Machine, which is the backup feature of the Leopard operating system. For a more simplistic and lower tech approach to archiving, the user can simply copy files to this desktop drive by dragging and dropping.

If you should need even more capacity, a LaCie one-terabyte external drive (7200 RPM speed) costs less than $230.00 USD. Two-terabyte drives will cost a bit more at $349.99 USD.  However, you may want to stick with two smaller external drives, as there is less risk of loss involved in using multiple smaller units instead of one larger one.  This is like putting your money in more than one bank, or your eggs in more than one basket.

While at the local Indianapolis Costco Wholesale Warehouse recently, I saw a 500-gigabyte Western Digital “My Book Essential” external hard drive for $99.00 USD. With equipment costs this low, there is no better time to buy one of these boxes.

Do the Math
If you’re an illustrator and sell (license) just one drawing, the chances are good that you could buy an external drive from the proceeds of just that single piece.  Think of the peace of mind you’ll have knowing that your digital illustration files are safe and sound, being stored on two or more physically independent pieces of hardware.

The cost of digital storage has gone down continually and dramatically over the years. As an example, in 1981 Apple Computer’s 5-megabyte hard drive replacement for the Lisa Computer sold for $3,500. That would have translated into $ 700 USD per megabyte (or a ridiculous $700,000 per gigabyte if that had even been available in 1981). This was an astronomical price by anyone’s standards, but it serves as a reference for comparing hard drive costs today.

At current 2009 prices, 500 gigabytes of storage for $99 USD (à la Costco) translates to a cost of $.20 (USD) per gigabyte.  For comparison to the $700 per megabyte cost back in 1981, the current cost of 20 cents (USD) per gigabyte further reduces to a whopping $.0002 cents (USD) per megabyte. It is noteworthy that 28 years of hard drive innovation has reduced hard drive costs by a factor of 3,500,000.

If you would rather simply add or replace your internal hard drive, it is now possible to replace your original equipment 100 – 250 GB internal hard drive with Western Digital’s new 2 terabyte “Caviar Green” internal drive.

Your Digital Photo Files
If you’re a natural science photographer, medical photographer, or you just take great vacation photos, consider the ease of use and the piece of mind that one of these drives could offer. If you’ve painstakingly converted all those Carousel trays of your dad’s old Kodachromes to digital files, take steps now to protect your family’s pictorial legacy. These external storage solutions offer a great return on investment, and offer state-of-the-art capacity, speed, and most of all, security.

Video Archiving
The concept here will seem a little counterintuitive to most. However, when it comes to storing original digital video footage, external (and internal) hard drives should be used only for short-term back up, but not for long-term video archiving.

So that brings us to a discussion of digital tape or Mini DV storage. As odd (and old) as this may sound, Mini-DV tape may still prove to be the best solution for archiving video. Backing up and archiving camera-original or edited video to digital tape is one of the most versatile and secure formats, when these tapes are properly labeled and stored.

A videographer friend of mine recently had his two-terabyte hard drive fail, and he lost a year’s worth of edited digital video. A data recovery service estimated that recovering the corrupted data on this two-terabyte drive could cost $1,995 to
$3,995 UDS depending on whether a full or partial recovery could be achieved. Archiving video on some $3 USD Mini-DV 60-minute tapes seems a bit more cost effective.

It is noteworthy to mention that archiving to Mini DV digital tape is a “loss-less” transfer process, similar to writing and reading a file from a hard drive. As digital video data is moved from the original tape into your editing software (and back out to tape again), there is no quality degradation of the video data. Outputting your completed video files to Mini DV tape represents a safe and effective way to store a video project.

When you do archive digital video back onto Mini-DV digital tapes, be sure to overlap the edited video with a minute or two of redundancy from tape to tape. This will ensure easy and reliable re-edits of this digital footage. Keep and sequentially label the series appropriately for easy access on any new project.

What about DVDs for video backup? Burning edited programs to DVD’s may produce pretty nice looking video, and is great for your demo reels and your family video as well. However, the MPEG 2 compression used in the DVD authoring process compresses the video. So while the DVD video may look OK, bringing this video back into the editing bay will be a big disappointment. It won’t be near the visual quality of the original raw footage.

Solid State Drives
In the future, solid-state drives using NAND Flash memory may offer a replacement for our bread and butter, spinning hard disks. Presently, this Flash media with its lack of any moving parts shows much promise, but this media has not yet developed to the point of offering adequate, cost effective storage. These solid-state drives offer a much better MTBFs (mean time between failures) than do conventional hard drives, but no one really knows about the longevity and endurance of this newer hard drive technology.

Flash Memory Sticks or Thumb Drives
What ever you may call these small, thumb-size Flash drives, they have found their niche among students, business professionals, and media specialists.  Sony Corporation developed the Flash memory card technology in 1998 with an original storage size of 128 MB. How convenient it is to now carry around 1 to 32 GB of storage in a small memory stick no bigger than a pocketknife.

As of this writing, is offering a 16 GB Kingston Data Traveler model DT100/16GB for $25.07 including free shipping. At only $1.57 USD per GB, the Data Traveler is a convenient and inexpensive way to carry around important documents and files. While this price is attractive, and the drive offers plug and play simplicity, these types of stick drives should not to be considered a safe, long term storage solution.

What’s a Gigabyte?
One final note...  1 GB of storage is actually 1024 MB (or 1,227,418,765 bytes). The 1 GB designation is not an even 1000 MB as we might sometimes may think. The 1000 MB figure is a “rounded number” used for general storage discussion.  In routine or common usage situations, this may not matter at all.

Don’t miss an opportunity to safely back up all of your professional and personal work. Invest in technology. You’ll be glad that you did.

Gary Schnitz


Copyright 2009, The Journal of Biocommunication, All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents for VOLUME 35, NUMBER 1