From Photo Albums to Digital Asset Management

If you asked someone ten years ago if their house was on fire or about to be washed away in a flood what objects they would try to save, old photographs would have been high on most people’s lists. Clothing, furniture, televisions, or kitchen items can all generally be replaced. Photographs of children, vacations, or deceased relatives represent memories that cannot be recaptured. Nonetheless, most people were not particularly careful about these precious artifacts. The more organized among us would put together albums. Many simply dump photographs into shoeboxes comforted by the vague promise that those pictures would be organized at some indefinite point in the future. Photos were not usually lost to disasters, but many times photographs would pass on to children who could no longer identify the people in the photographs or even vaguely when the photographs were taken.

I purchased my first digital camera in 2000. Several consequences of the new technology were clear. It was much easier to organize digital photos. They were inherently time-tagged, if you remembered to set the clock on your camera. Digital photos can now also be tagged with metadata including geographical location and the name of the persons included. The embedded information also allows digital photos to be rapidly searched and sorted into different albums.

However, in an key sense digital photos are more fragile. The disks they occupy can of course suffer, like traditional physical photographs, from fire, flood or other disasters, but are additionally vulnerable to mechanical disk failures or the inability to read outmoded media. This vulnerability is partially offset by the ease with which digital data can be duplicated.

It is not clear that most people recognize the vulnerability of digital information and are taking appropriate back up precautions. I am fearful that there will be many families who will loose irreplaceable photos until a culture of digital data backup is fully adopted.

In 2000, there were many fewer options for backing up data. My first strategy was to copy my data, mostly photos, to CDs or DVDs. I made two full backups every six months. One, I kept home for easy access, and another at work in case there were some disaster at home. There are clearly a few problems with this approach. First,  it requires more discipline than most busy people are willing to commit to. In addition, even a 4 GByte DvD is quickly filled, and backups begin to require many multiple disks. It is also possible to loose data saved between backups.

The second version of my backup strategy was a hybrid. I purchased an account on ($35/year) which would allows me to upload an unlimited quantity of picture files. After each photo session, I uploaded the files there. Note only could I retrieve the files in bulk using ftp, but I could allow friends and relatives to view the images on line. Other files, tax records and the like I continued to backup on DvDs.

Last summer I implemented a more modern backup system. The new system was coincident with my switch from a Windows PC to a Mac. The Mac comes with a backup utility called “Time Machine.” I connected an external USB drive to my iMac, and Time Machine provided a complete backup continuously. The term “Time Machine” refers to the fact that, depending on the size of the disk, different, older versions of the same file could be retrieved. This would come in handy if one modifies a file and later thinks better of it.

Even with the convenience of this local backup, it was still important to maintain an off-site backup. If one has an upload bandwidth of better than 1 Mbit/s, there are several choices to do this automatically in the “cloud.” The three I examined were Carbonite, Mozy, and Backblaze. All provide roughly the same functionality: unlimited backup for a monthly fee of about $5 for each computer. All allowed encryption for privacy.  I ended up choosing Backblaze primarily because it allowed backup of cross mounted (not network attached) disks.

Unfortunately, this fall I had an opportunity to test the efficacy of this backup strategy. My wife and I returned home one evening to discover that our house had been broken into. Among other items, my iMac was stolen. I was relieved that I was backed up on line so that no data were lost.  However, closer examination showed that the thieves had left (through more  oversight than kindness) the external hard disk I had used for back.

After we were certain that we would be reimbursed from the insurance company, we purchased a new iMac. The question was how to perform the recovery. The old iMac was running OS-X 10.5 (Leopard), while the newly purchased one came with OS-X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). How would Time Machine deal with the recovery?

The people at the Apple Store told me that the retrieval process would not write over newer files, so by inference the newer operating system would not be overwritten in the recovery process. It was worth a try. After all I could always rebuild the new system.

I attached the USB backup drive to the new iMac. At the initial bootup, I responded to a few questions and the system asked if I wanted to recover data from a Time Machine backup. I clicked “yes” after a few moments the computer informed me that the recovery would take 48 minutes. I went to eat dinner.

When I returned and logged in, I had my old system: the same applications and the same settings, even the same wallpaper. Indeed it was so identical that I suspected that the old 10.5 version of the operating system had been over installed. However, the “About the Mac” menu item confirmed that the newer 10.6 operating system was installed. This was further confirmed by the fact that I had to upgrade a few minor applications to run on the new OS. In sum, I could not have had a better recovery experience from “Time Machine.”

I mention here an interesting side note. I checked with Backblaze and the last auto update had occurred at 5:30 pm on the day the computer was stolen. Hence, the robbery had occurred between that time and the time we arrived home a 9:00 pm.

Since the incident I have looked more carefully at the whole concept of  Digital Asset Management (DAM). The general strategy for long-term backups is referred to as the 3-2-1 rule:

“To be fully protected, you should have three copies of any file (that’s three different devices, not three copies on the same device), two different media types (like hard drive and DVD, for instance), and one should be stored off-site. If you can adhere to this rule, your images will be extremely well-protected.”

I guess my strategy does not quite meet this high standard. There are three copies: my hard disc, my external hard disk, and my off-site storage. However, I am not really using two different types of media. All the data are stored on hard disks – though I do print out some small subset of images. Except for that asteroid or electromagnetic pulse from nuclear blast, it is hard to imagine what situation could wipe out all these disks at the same time. In that event, recovery my photos might fall to a lower priority.

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