Even in a SaaS relationship, the data is always yours

Author: Steven Zolman

A few weeks ago, Sony announced that it was ending production of the 3.5” floppy disk. I have boxes upon boxes of these little plastic memory devices, some with labels barely hanging on by a glue remnant. Sure, I haven’t had a computer with a floppy drive in almost a decade, but if the disks are being shelved, disk drives are soon to follow. What happens to my data?

This isn’t the first time that technical obsolescence has affected my life. I’ve already repurchased my original PacMan Fever album three times as technology leapt from vinyl to cassette to compact disc. In its fourth iteration, I was able to convert from CD to MP3 on my own – but it was a leap nonetheless. And in another sad move from Sony, they’ve just announced that they’ve designed and shipped the last boombox with a cassette deck.

Businesses aren’t always that lucky. I was touring the data center at a client site one afternoon when we came across some magnetic tape data storage media. Library shelves literally filled with what look like large filmstrips. Turns out that it was 9 track tape from the 1950s. And lo and behold in the next room? The 9 track tape drive – a refrigerator-sized piece of hardware. I gasped and asked if it still worked. My guide (the director of the facility) shrugged and said: “I sure hope so… we still have customer data on those reels that’s not stored up anywhere else.”

The author of the dead floppy article referenced at the beginning of this post recommends moving data storage to the “cloud” – putting everything you have into the hands of large data management companies who will store your information in a ready-to-change-format medium, always available to you via the Internet. Nifty idea, but there are still problems with the concept, especially if your business is safeguarding information.

First, remember that these facilities can be anywhere. Contractual requirements attempt to limit the geographic location of the storage network that’s holding your information. Have you considered that one of the key features of the network is backup – and cheap storage is more readily found in places other than the US? Even in an archival format (such as the 9 track tape), do you want your data floating around where you can’t keep your hands on it?

Next, while we’ve already discussed that media format is obviously important, what about the format of the data itself? Proprietary data formats have long since been troubling to the average technology user – Microsoft itself can’t even settle on a single format even for word processing (I’m not just talking about MS-Word vs MS-Works, neither of which could read the data of the other, but even MS-Word 2003, which can’t read documents created by Word 2007 without special conversion software). In the end, it’s probably your own responsibility to make sure that the data you’re storing today will be accessible tomorrow. For that former client, it means keeping a 9-track tape drive. What does it mean for you?

But perhaps most important when considering moving your data to the cloud is your ability to get the data back/out/off whenever you want. DC Toedt pointed out the dilemma Mitsubishi finds themselves in, as their parts catalog is being held hostage by their current web host. Industry Analyst Ray Wang even includes this as a requirement in his SaaS Bill of Rights. Always remember: the data itself is yours. You are paying for storage and retrieval all along – and extracting that data later is a right, not a privilege.

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