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The eternal document question

This article appears in the issue May 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 5]


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The introduction of LockVault from Network Appliance, a mirrored, logical copy-based storage system for unstructured data, raises questions about what constitutes an original document or record in a digital environment. Alan Pelz-Sharpe questions whether long-established practices and definitions in records management are relevant in a pure, digital environment, and whether products like LockVault unintentionally fall short of the regulatory compliant standard that they claim.

Methods and definitions in the world of records management (RM) have been long established and remain as valid today as they ever have. However, most of those methods and definitions were agreed upon when records were hard copies; in most commercial situations that meant paper documents. The introduction and growth of digital documents have been embraced by the RM community, but many of those base definitions remain unchanged, and are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. One of those is the definition of an original document.

What is an original document? An original document or file is just that, the original. It is not a copy; it is authentic and it can be proven to be authentic. In the paper RM world, that is easy to understand: The original signed document is the original, not a photocopy of the original, even though that photocopy may be identical in every way. Even though the copy may be identical in every way, it is not the original, and in many cases will not be given the same legal status. Likewise, in most instances, digital documents that are identified as originals, needing to be securely stored for a defined period of time due to regulatory demands, are stored as originals--in other words, the actual original file is transferred to an archive medium such as disk or tape.

However, most of those digital originals are in the form of unstructured data files or fixed content—the files are typically bulky, complex in nature and make heavy demands on storage systems. The perceived need to reduce that burden has spawned logical, copy-based storage systems like LockVault. Such a system stores an original file, but if changes are made to it moving forward, only the changed elements are stored. However, what will be displayed to anyone querying the system will be an exact replica of the changed original--a virtual original.

This type of system challenges the very basis of the RM concept of an original. For example, if a paper document goes through a series of drafts and changes, in some instances, it will be correct to archive only the final version--the version that has incorporated all the changes. However, in other situations, it will be necessary to archive each version, and to show the audit trail, and to some degree the thought process that moved the changes. In those situations, a log of the changes will not suffice--the actual original documents at each stage, and every draft, will need to be archived.

Therefore, there is a question as to whether logical copy storage is always the right approach, and whether more traditional physical copy storage may be more applicable in some circumstances. That may seem pedantic, but the issue here is that the finer points of many new regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Basel II are yet untested in court. Likewise, technology solutions that have been designed to help meet some of those regulatory situations are equally untested in court. However, most of the established record-keeping definitions and methods established by records managers over many years have been tested many times and validated in court. Until those definitions are revised or overturned, it makes sense to observe them, and to act with caution when electronically storing fixed content.

Recommendations

Those involved in IT and RM projects focused on meeting regulatory standards need to act with caution. Not all of the software and hardware solutions currently available in the marketplace are equal. You need to be clear about what constitutes an "original" document, and make sure that your legal counsel agrees. If a storage product or software solution does not manage the actual original, you may have issues to resolve down the line. Mirrored physical copies of fixed content data may be more optimal in terms of meeting regulatory compliancy needs than mirrored logical copies (storing only changes). In many instances, paper records may well continue to be of importance, and electronic methods of storage and management will represent a highly efficient backup to those paper records rather than a replacement.


Alan Pelz-Sharpe is VP of software and services, North America, Ovum, and a research director with Ovum's IT group, e-mail alan.pelz.sharpe@ovum.com.


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