Back in 2012 I mouthed off on my personal opinion in regards to the rapid changeover to digital film-making and digital movie projection and the subsequent disappearance of actual film.
Digital technology has also radically altered the way that movies are preserved for posterity, but here the effect has been far less salutary. These days, the major studios and film archives largely rely on a magnetic tape storage technology known as LTO, or linear tape-open, to preserve motion pictures. When the format first emerged in the late 1990s, it seemed like a great solution. The first generation of cartridges held an impressive 100 gigabytes of uncompressed data; the latest, LTO-7, can hold 6 terabytes uncompressed and 15 TB compressed. Housed properly, the tapes can have a shelf life of 30 to 50 years. While LTO is not as long-lived as polyester film stock, which can last for a century or more in a cold, dry environment, it’s still pretty good.
The problem with LTO is obsolescence. Since the beginning, the technology has been on a Moore’s Law–like march that has resulted in a doubling in tape storage densities every 18 to 24 months. As each new generation of LTO comes to market, an older generation of LTO becomes obsolete. LTO manufacturers guarantee at most two generations of backward compatibility. What that means for film archivists with perhaps tens of thousands of LTO tapes on hand is that every few years they must invest millions of dollars in the latest format of tapes and drives and then migrate all the data on their older tapes—or risk losing access to the information altogether.
But the frequency of LTO upgrades has film archivists over a barrel. Already there have been seven generations of LTO in the 18 years of the product’s existence, and the LTO Consortium, which includes Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, and Quantum, has a road map that specifies generations 8, 9, and 10. Given the short period of backward compatibility—just two generations—an LTO-5 cartridge, which can still be read on an LTO-7 drive, won’t be readable on an LTO-8 drive. So even if that tape is still free from defects in 30 or 50 years, all those gigabytes or terabytes of data will be worthless if you don’t also have a drive upon which to play it.
Steven Anastasi, vice president of global media archives and preservation services at Warner Bros., therefore puts the practical lifetime of an LTO cartridge at approximately 7 years.
Most of the archivists I spoke with remain—officially at least—optimistic that a good, sound, post-LTO solution will eventually emerge. But not everyone shares that view. The most chilling prediction I heard came from a top technician at Technicolor.
“There’s going to be a large dead period,” he told me, “from the late ’90s through 2020, where most media will be lost.”
I recommend you read the entire article, fascinating reading. I remember when hard drives became available in personal computers, I once paid $250 for a 40 Megabyte drive. I wasn’t sure about the need to spend that much money for such a ridiculously large amount of storage, but my wife said to me, “Go ahead, we’ll fill it up someday”.
A scientific article of the time came out and stated that the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica could be easily stored on a five gigabyte hard drive (which hadn’t been developed at the time). When I read that I could look over at the bookshelf and graze at the three shelves of EB I owned at the time. “Wow” I thought.