Horse Sense #114

Data Elimination

I've been cleaning up a lot of people's systems lately and it occurs to me that we talk a lot in the computer business about backing up your data, but we rarely talk at all about getting rid of it entirely.

Not everything you store is valuable. Recently, I removed terabytes of useless backups at one client site. On a number of workstations over the last month, I found old copies of Windows that stored gigabytes of data that will never be used and removed them. I regularly find log files in excess of 1GB, hundreds of megabytes of installation files and patches kept around on machines "just in case" by the software vendor, old and unused programs, etc. My first desktop PC had a 20MB hard disk. Imagine my surprise when I found Internet Explorer defaulted on many machines to a 250MB cache size! Cache files are meant to be used in the short term. They have little value except to make your web browsing a little bit faster. But....with 250MB of space available, your cache can hang around for an exceptionally long time.

Data is not valuable. Information is. Information is something that is useful to you. The older data gets, the less likely it is to be information. One client asked me how long he needed to hold on to his information. The answer was the simple, but difficult "as long as you need to." You should definitely hold on to any data that is actual information that you need to run your business. There may be regulations governing how long you need to hold on to information. It may not be useful to you at that point, but it would still be information as long as a government was concerned. If you look up "data retention policies" you will find recommendations for how long you should hold on to data (typically accounting data). Any information you are not using on a regular basis should be treated as archival. Since it is rarely going to be accessed, you do not need to back it up every day. Anything that is not even useful from an archival standpoint should be deleted.

Many people think that hard drive space is cheap and computers are fast so getting rid of older data is a bad idea because they "just might need it." The reality is that every piece of data you store has a cost to it. At one time the cost of managing data was estimated at $7/MB/year. I am sure it is cheaper than that now, but the principle still applies: dealing with smaller amounts of data can save you lots of time, effort, and money.

Too many people think that it is safer to keep everything. Well.... Think of saving virtually everything that comes in to your house. You would soon have newspapers, magazines, old boxes, and lots of other junk floor to ceiling. It would be hard to move around and very difficult to find and use what you did have. The floors would likely collapse. All of these scenarios are present in the digital world. Removing old data and programs improves security, speed, reliability, and productivity, often by staggering amounts. In many cases, I find that older computers (some only months old) are almost unusable because they are just so gunked up.

So, what should you do? No one knows your business better than you do, so no one knows better what you can safely eliminate and productively archive. If you have been using your computer even for a few days, you might find unbelievable amounts of useless data on it. Do not wait for "spring cleaning." In fact, it is often a good time to clean up when installing an update to a program. You need to continually think about keeping things neat and tidy. Every so often, you need to do a deeper cleaning or analysis. I do this once a month on my machines to keep them in excellent operating shape. I find that many people are unsure of what is safe to delete and so they leave things alone. But, would you do that with your car? Nope. Asking someone like us for help and advice can be a very good idea. Very often the most important work that we do is helping people to understand how they can make their computing environment work better for them. Reasonable data management and other policies are very effective in improving productivity.

Here is an easy example. E mail is a very important business tool these days. However, the older the e mail, the less likely you are to access it. Most people rarely refer to a mail older than two weeks, and there are very few circumstances where someone refers to an e mail more than 90 days old. But....for regulatory compliance or customer service reasons you might want to hold on to old e mail. A good solution would be to keep two weeks of e mail on line, put everything older than two weeks into a flexible and searchable archive, and have a policy to delete all e mail older than three years old. All of this can be done (mostly) automatically with e mail archiving appliances and services. [Yes, we do sell them.]

Computer joke warning: Remember that every little bit costs. -- Remember that less is more and data elimination is a good thing. And, of course, that we at Iron Horse are here to help.

©2014 Tony tirk, Iron Horse