In a recent meeting with colleagues from other academic and research libraries the conversation turned to data management in general and the recent NSF proposal changes in specific that require data management plans that indicate how the researcher intends to store and make accessible data collected in fulfilling the grant. No one present had worked this out at their institution; at best it was mostly in the discussion or exploration stage. We did acknowledge that some ARL members were farther along, and that provided some potential data plan models.
Since we had less to exchange about data management progress than hoped for, the conversation turned to data capacity. Almost to a person we shared the overarching institutional concern that the amount of computer storage and network capacity needed for managing all the data would be difficult to achieve. For many years academic librarians have had little reason to contemplate the possibility of limitations to digital storage capacity. No matter what digital projects we identified, the issue of storage capacity was not a major concern. The future may present a different reality.
Signs of what’s to come?
I’m no IT expert, but even I can see some of the writing on the wall. For one thing, we are all, at least those of us with smartphones, going to experience a situation in which cell phone vendors limit data use or charge hefty fees to give it a boost. The challenge of providing faster networks is that we each use them to consume ever greater amounts of data. Why not stream a feature film while downloading a book during a video call – all on your smartphone? If the network allows us to do it, we will, just as we’ll create repositories with endless mountains of data – because we can.
That type of unlimited growth may be coming to an end. Wireless carriers are taking steps to change “all-the-data-you-can-consume” plans to ones that are tiered. That means a free monthly allotment of limited data, with the consumption of additional data based on the amount one wishes to consume. We’ll be able to continue to consume all the data we want, but the cost of doing so may cause us to become data dieters.
I want my…unlimited bandwidth
Another indicator that change is on the way comes to us from Cornell University. With all the problems in the world that could serve as fodder for a student protest, a group of Cornell students chose to get riled up about an even more serious problem than world hunger or the global economy.
The source of their anger is a Cornell information technology policy, which has been in effect for a decade, that limits the amount of bandwidth available to students. It’s similar to the printing policy in effect at many colleges and universities. Students receive a quota of free printing each semester, perhaps 300 pages, and they only pay for printing if they exceed that quota. Apply that to bandwidth and you understand Cornell’s policy. According to this article, over 200 students signed a petition to argue that the policy is out of date since it doesn’t reflect current students’ bandwidth needs.
“It’s not possible to give everyone unlimited use,” Tracy Mitrano, Cornell’s director of IT , says in the article.
Nonetheless, the students’ demand to the administration to expand bandwidth is sure to shift to what happens in the classroom or lab. I would imagine that when tough choices have to be made about limiting bandwidth and data storage, IT will prioritize learning and research applications. Those are the core missions.
A future defined by limits
While there’s no need to panic just yet-heck, my campus email storage space was just increased from four to ten gigs-a future in which storage space and bandwidth are limited should get noticed in our environmental scan. How long will our libraries be granted unlimited quantities of both? Or is our future looking more like that of a Cornell student? Many IT units are already offering other departments the ability to obtain extra storage on a pay-as-you-go-basis.
EDUCAUSE’s top ten IT issues for 2011 puts the budget at number one; increasing storage and bandwidth costs money, and we all know that’s limited. Concerns specifically about storage or bandwidth are not reflected in the 2011 list, although infrastructure is, and while moving services to the cloud can bring efficiencies, it does demand an even greater need for secure, constant connectivity.
It seems we’ll need to build a strong case for why our academic libraries need that unlimited supply. Preserving data for future generations demands lots of storage.
Possibilities are just beginning
The other potential solution is to pay no attention to what IT’s concerns are and to instead do what’s always worked best for academic libraries: resource sharing. By combining our resources we might have greater opportunities to expand our storage capacity in affordable ways. One possible model is provided by Dryad, a data-sharing repository. A product of cooperation among multiple institutions, it invites researchers to contribute their research data and make it available for sharing. Research libraries are already demonstrating that cooperation can, in addition to creating efficiencies, pave the way for initiatives that few of us could achieve on our own.
If you think I’m blowing the data storage and bandwidth situation out of proportion, you could be right. However, when colleagues I trust tell me of growing levels of consternation over where tomorrow’s gargantuan data storage and bandwidth will come from, I have to pay attention. We’ve come to believe that many technologies, especially data storage, always get cheaper and more abundant, never the opposite. Perhaps that’s more myth than reality. Of course, technology may provide solutions in the way of massive, affordable storage and bandwidth. I hope so. Otherwise there may be a huge roadblock on the way to our digital future.