Livedrive's New Online Storage Secret: Paper Printouts

Last Updated Apr 13, 2011 8:35 AM EDT

When Google lost all emails and contact information for tens of thousands of Gmail users in February, it was a reminder that even redundant data centers and multiple copies of information can fail. The company eventually resorted to magnetic tape backups. Online cloud storage is ultimately only as good as a vendor's plan for offline storage, even if the method used seems obsolete, as tape does to many.

But what if something even worse happened, like a storage failure combined with a strong electromagnetic pulse that wiped the tapes? Earlier this month, I had an email exchange with British online storage company Livedrive about the firm's online storage business, whose final backup -- paper! -- makes tape look cutting edge. It sounds crazy until you think about it and realize that for critical data, it may be a lot saner than you might think.

CEO Andrew Michael wrote that a customer had asked what would happen in a nuclear attack, which could create an EMF pulse that could turn tapes into so many miles of plastic film. Frankly, you might think that the customer would have bigger problems than recovering data, but put that aside for a moment. Tapes are gone, so what do you do?

Even if tapes last, they degrade over time, as does every electronic medium. Every data storage technology has weaknesses, but paper has literally stood the test of time. Kept away from fire and out of damp conditions, the material has been known to last many hundreds of years.

The earliest known printed book, the Diamond Sutra of Indian Buddhism, dates to the year 868. That's far beyond the lifespan of tapes or optical storage like DVDs.

Livedrive developed a double dense QT code -- those two-dimensional barcodes you sometimes come across -- that stores 6 kilobytes in one mark. (The one at the right is an ordinary QT code for a Wikipedia URL.) The company has systems to print out and store enormous volumes of paper, as the video below explains:


The company focuses on a niche market that is more sensitive to losing data and that is willing to pay a slightly premium price for online storage: $6.95 a month.

Livedrive's business offers a "good margin," according to Michael. That comes in handy because the paper storage process is more expensive than the digital storage. A gigabyte of data takes a full ream -- 500 sheets -- of A2 paper, which measures 420 by 594 millimeters, or about 16.5 by 23.4 inches. Holy Filing Cabinets of Antioch. Restoring data from QT codes takes about 30 minutes per gigabyte.

It's an interesting inclusion of low tech to create a product offering that is distinctive in what is otherwise a commodity market. Livedrive has patented the double-dense QT codes and is looking for other ways of using them.

Related: Images: Wikipedia, public domain, and Livedrive.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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