Digital archiving versus backup: They're not the same

The two technologies have difference purposes, and one can't double for the other.

By Jim Cuff

Many people use the terms "digital archiving" and "backup" interchangeably since they both relate to electronic data storage. The distinction lies solely in the purpose. Specifically,

  • If you are storing data with the expectation that you may need to use it or access it in the future for business purposes, then you are archiving.
  • If you are storing data for the purpose of recovering from a disaster, a system crash, data corruption, or other event, then you are performing backup. It is a good practice for electronic data to be backed up and protected offline and off-site.

Digital archiving

The archiving process is part of a records management program. The purpose of archiving is to keep active and inactive official records available for use in a cost-effective and retention-compliant manner. An archiving system is built based on record classes (types of documents) and retrieval needs. Digital archiving systems store data in a combination of online, near-line, or offline systems based on frequency and speed of retrieval.

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The need for a digital archiving system is driven by internal and external factors. Internal drivers include the need to have cost-effective access to inactive or semi-active records. External drivers include governmental and industry-specific regulatory requirements. An important item to note is that archiving systems should also be backed up as part of a disaster-recovery process.


The backup process is part of a disaster-recovery program. The purpose of a backup is to be able to restore systems, applications, and/or data in the event of a disaster, system crash, or data corruption. A backup and data-protection program is built based on "recovery point objectives" and "recovery time objectives." The goal is to rely on backups to recover lost data to the most current point in time possible. In today's business climate, it is prudent for every organization to have a disaster-recovery and business continuity plan that is documented and regularly tested.

Backups are not archiving systems

Many organizations that have existing backup processes and an emerging need for archiving systems attempt to find a fast track or inexpensive solution by using their backups as archives.

This approach has drawbacks because there are a number of digital archiving requirements that backup cannot adequately fulfill, including

  • Classification and/or access to documents according to the company's retention policy;
  • Obsolescence management to ensure long-term future readability of documents as formats, applications, hardware, and operating systems change; and
  • Compliance with regulatory archiving storage and access requirements.

Organizations that have a need for digital archiving should consider investing in archiving solutions that can address their specific needs and requirements.

Digital archiving stores data that you will need to use or access in future business operations. Backups store data for the purpose of recovery in the event of a disaster or other system problem. Because these two activities have different purposes, it is not a good idea to use one to serve double duty. Investing in data backup and digital archiving solutions can increase the effectiveness of your records management and disaster-recovery programs.

Jim Cuff is vice president of engineering at Iron Mountain (www.ironmountain.com) in Boston, MA.

This article was originally published on October 01, 2003