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E-ARK Database Preservation Workshop
19th Feb 2015 - 20th Feb 2015
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Relational database management systems are one of the essential building blocks of information technology. Ubiquitous but often obscured behind layers of scripting, processing, forms and queries, they are arguably the most important invention of the Twentieth Century. It’s hard to think of a software application or service that does not have some fundamental dependency on database technologies.
So it’s surprising that the digital preservation community seems to have spent so little time explicitly considering their preservation. More accurately it’s surprising that there is less awareness and integration between the digital preservation community and the various tools and approaches used in commercial settings to manage the long term accessibility of records in database systems known as ‘data warehousing’. There’s no question that databases present a complex challenge to preservation. They can be difficult to document and difficult to understand even when they are documented. The complex interdependencies of data, query and scripting make migration problematic and highly specialised. Database migration is often seen as a purely technical operation, upgrading one legacy system with another soon-to-be-legacy replacement.
Relational databases and to some extent data warehousing approaches, which favour structure and homogeneity, are sometimes contrasted with ‘big data’ approaches that tend to favour heterogeneity and de-normalisation. It could be suggested that a concern with relational databases is outmoded and that the preservation community could simply adopt big data approaches. But the contrast can be overstated, especially when preservation issues are discussed. In practice ‘big data’ tools seem to offer improved workflows that complement rather than replace existing data warehouse tools. And even if ‘big data’ tools are the solution for access they still need to integrate with fundamental preservation processes and standards.
Better technical guidance and organisational know-how are needed if the digital preservation community is to offer confident and consistent solutions to long-term access for relational databases.