Building a DAM to Last: Archiving Digital Assets

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Multi-megabyte audio files and video clips; multi-gigabyte movies; massive multimedia presentations. These days, many enterprises find their digital content cup overflowing. Measuring in the hundreds of gigabytes to dozens of terabytes, businesses as diverse as movie production houses, TV and radio broadcasters, advertising agencies, school districts, and others are now forced to face the challenge of what to do with those digital assets.

In some cases, they're scattered throughout the organization, or on servers with limited access privileges. They're poorly cataloged, or stored in obsolete or obscure file formats. There may be no tracking or version-control systems to ensure that the correct assets are being used accurately. It's safe to assume that many digital asset repositories lack a robust backup or disaster-recovery system; a flood or power surge might cause the loss of irreplaceable files.

As content files grow in size and quantity, the issues surrounding their long-term storage multiply as well. What type of physical media should be used, and on what platform? In what format (or formats) should the files be stored? What types of software should be used to organize the content, and to control access to it? How will the content be delivered to those who require access to it? And, of course, how will those digital asset archives be protected from accidental loss or intentional tampering?

The DAM Problem
"The whole problem," according to Kevin Cochran, vice president of product management for Interwoven Inc., "is the notion of reuse. Knowledge workers spend a great deal of time producing rich information that can be used in one context, at one particular point in time—but then it's completely lost. People want to find, capture, and categorize that information so it can be reused in different contexts. That problem is magnified when you're talking about digital assets. The time and cost it takes to produce those rich media assets is extremely high."

Interwoven sells its eponymous enterprise content management software to both ordinary businesses and media companies, and competes against companies such as Broadvision Inc., Documentum Inc., and Vignette Corp.

Each organization needs to examine its policies regarding digital asset management and storage, and determine its own optimal solution that fits its data, needs, and budget. But, of course, there are general principals that can help frame that discussion.

The first step is to determine exactly what your digital assets are, what they're likely to be in the future, and the potential business value of those assets to your organization, partners, and customers. Based on that information, one can determine how much to store, and potentially, which format(s) to store it in. That, in turn, leads to issues of user access, including content searching and metadata, and of content delivery. Finally, once the requirements are known, then, and only then, should one determine the correct storage architecture, including software databases and file systems, and physical media such as network-attached disk arrays or tapes. (Metadata is data that describes the content, and would be accessible by a searchable index or a content management system.)

Digital assets can take many forms, and their business value may not be obvious. Imagine a book publisher: Edited manuscripts are laid out using tools like FrameMaker, QuarkXpress, or PageMaker. These manuscripts, with embedded illustrations, form the foundation of the publishing process and they need to be archived for reprinting or for reuse in future or online editions. If the only use that will be made of those digital assets were one-time publishing, a tape- CD-, or file server-archived copy might prove adequate. Right?

Wrong. Look beyond the simple. Perhaps those manuscripts could become the foundation of a print-on-demand publishing Web application, which could provide additional backlist revenue to a publisher, and royalties to authors. Perhaps internal users or contracted authors might benefit from a library of pre-drawn illustrations.

DAM Good Value
Andrew Olson, vice president of marketing for thePlatform for Media Inc., distinguishes between three separate parts of the value chain: content creation, such as shooting the video and converting it to digital format; content publishing, which means creating the end-user presentation and managing rights; and content delivery, such as using Web streaming. thePlatform's media publishing system provides both hosted and shrink-wrapped solutions for managing the publishing phase. "You have to look at the economics carefully," he advised.

Think about the internal and external value of raw and edited video clips to a TV station, being readily available to producers for follow-up reports, obituaries, retrospective programs, or other purposes. Nearly every digital asset has a wealth of potential applications—if it's made available to the right people, using the right technologies.

That's key for the business, agreed Interwoven's Cochran. "I would argue that in all businesses these days, content is the business," he says. "It's more apparent for certain companies, like Lucas Film or a Disney. With something like a Disney Online, which is an Interwoven customer, the value of their shares is based on the value of their digital assets."

The value, of course, is not only on the existing assets, but depends on the ease of creating new assets, and integrating them into content repositories and archives. "As the power of computing continues to grow and consumers continue to expect more appealing video games, CG films, visualizations, and simulations, there is greater demand on development teams to create more complex programming and graphical content," says Eric Schumacher, market director from NXN Software AG, which sells alienbrain, an asset management system targeting the digital media industry. "In the video game industry, this content is often simultaneously localized and produced for multiple platforms, adding a further level of complexity to the development process," he continued.

Does that means that every asset should be digitized and stored? Not necessarily, argues thePlatform's Olson, as the cost of format conversion and storage may exceed its potential business value. "If it turns out that the cost of encoding your archive is $400,000 today, it's probably going to go down a little bit over time—but not by much because there's a lot of labor involved. The question is, what's the net present value?"

The business value should determine what actually gets archived, according to Olson who cites CNBC, one of thePlatform's customers: "They keep a one-year archive digitally of about 35 clips per day that we capture for them." Anything older than a year, he says, is dumped—the value just isn't there to store it. Indeed, he says, "People forget the 80-20 rule. The number of people who encode their entire library, when it makes no sense…it's a bandwagon, why are you jumping on it? You know what the evergreen stuff is. CNBC is a great example of people who know that data has a shelf life."

That brings up the issue of the traditional archiving medium: tape. According to Brett Goodwin, vice president of business development at Isilon Systems Inc., "Traditionally, and still out there today, most of your archives are stored on tape. You have your current assets that you're working on, but once they're produced, they're stored on tape. The challenge is that those assets are not readily available for reuse." he points out. "It's difficult to find and retrieve those assets from tape, and put them back into the workflow again in the right digital format."

Isilon sells disk arrays optimized for digital asset storage and archiving, and Goodwin says that his customers want to make their archive an active feature of their network and production systems. "In order to do that, they want to introduce a new layer into their archive—a disk-based active archive. That won't completely replace a tape archive because you still want a portable, inexpensive, archive. But in front of that, you'll have a database-driven indexed system that provides all the metadata for that archive."

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