Data that's here today could be gone tomorrow, says Cerf

"Backward compatibility is very hard to preserve over very long periods of time"

Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf is concerned that we're at risk of losing much of the data we've been creating in the digital age he helped usher in.

Speaking at the Computerworld Honors awards program earlier this month, the co-designer of the Internet's TCP/IP protocol said he's concerned that digital items we use today -- spreadsheets, documents and scientific data -- will one day be lost, perhaps one day soon.

To support his point, Cerf noted that the Microsoft Office 2011 software on his Macintosh computer can't read a 1997 PowerPoint file. "It doesn't know what it is," he said.

"I'm not blaming Microsoft," said Cerf, who is Google's vice president and chief Internet evangelist. "What I'm saying is that backward compatibility is very hard to preserve over very long periods of time."

Preserving files on disks isn't the answer, because digital content is meaningful only if software can interpret it. "We may lose the ability to understand the disk," he said.

It's not just PowerPoint slides, he said. The vast amounts of data that scientists collect from simulations and instrument readings may also be lost. The key is to preserve the metadata, which tells the conditions under which the data was collected, how the instruments were calibrated and the correct interpretation of units.

What's needed, Cerf said, is a "digital vellum," a means as durable and long-lasting as the material that has preserved written content for more than 1,000 years.

Fortunately, he said, the world is aware of the problem and efforts are underway to solve it.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Read more about applications in Computerworld's Applications Topic Center.

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