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Preserving open source software for future generations

The world is powered by open source software.
It is a hidden cornerstone of modern civilization, and the shared heritage of all humanity. The mission of the GitHub Archive Program is to preserve open source software for future generations.

GitHub is partnering with the Long Now Foundation, the Internet Archive, the Software Heritage Foundation, Arctic World Archive, Microsoft Research, the Bodleian Library, and Stanford Libraries to ensure the long-term preservation of the world’s open source software. We will protect this priceless knowledge by storing multiple copies, on an ongoing basis, across various data formats and locations, including a very-long-term archive designed to last at least 1,000 years.

Why we use multiple forms of storage

As today’s vital code becomes yesterday’s historical curiosity, it may be abandoned, forgotten, or lost. Worse, albeit much less likely, in the case of global catastrophe, we could lose everything stored on modern media in a few generations. Archiving software across multiple organizations and forms of storage will help ensure its long-term preservation: online archivists call this “LOCKSS,” for Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.

A worrying amount of the world’s knowledge is currently stored on ephemeral media: hard drives, SSDs, CDs good for a few decades, backup tapes whose notional 30-year lifespans assume strictly controlled heat and humidity. Because (some) hardware can be much longer-lived, there exists a range of possible futures in which working modern computers exist, but their software has largely been lost to bit rot. The GitHub Archive Program will include much longer-term media to address the risk of data loss over time.

How the future might use our code
Future historians will be able to learn about us from open source projects and metadata. They might regard our age of open source ubiquity, volunteer communities, and Moore’s Law as historically significant. We are already partnering with Stanford Libraries to help archive curated repositories along with the cultural and other context in which they are set, as key elements of wide-ranging historical and social research and analysis.

Because hardware can be much longer-lived than most of today’s storage media, especially older ones and/or those with mask ROM, there exists a range of possible futures in which working modern computers exist, but their software has largely been lost to bit rot. The Archive Program will preserve that software.

Even in the near future, storing data with multiple partners provides options to people whose access might otherwise be restricted. If GitHub were to become unavailable in any location, for example due to an internet routing issue, those affected could access public code for their projects using the Internet Archive and Software Heritage Foundation.

There is a long history of lost technologies from which the world would have benefited, as well as abandoned technologies which found unexpected new uses, from Roman concrete, or the anti-malarial DFDT, to the hunt for mothballed Saturn V blueprints after the Challenger disaster. It is easy to envision a future in which today’s software is seen as a quaint and long-forgotten irrelevancy, until an unexpected need for it arises. Like any backup, the GitHub Archive Program is also intended for currently unforeseeable futures as well.

The GitHub Arctic Code Vault
The GitHub Arctic Code Vault is a data repository preserved in the Arctic World Archive (AWA), a very-long-term archival facility 250 meters deep in the permafrost of an Arctic mountain. The archive is located in a decommissioned coal mine in the Svalbard archipelago, closer to the North Pole than the Arctic Circle. GitHub will capture a snapshot of every active public repository on 02/02/2020 and preserve that data in the Arctic Code Vault.

How the cold storage will last 1,000 years
Svalbard is regulated by the international Svalbard Treaty as a demilitarized zone. Home to the world’s northernmost town, it is one of the most remote and geopolitically stable human habitations on Earth.

The AWA is a joint initiative between Norwegian state-owned mining company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (SNSK) and very-long-term digital preservation provider Piql AS. AWA is devoted to archival storage in perpetuity. The film reels will be stored in a steel-walled container inside a sealed chamber within a decommissioned coal mine on the remote archipelago of Svalbard. The AWA already preserves historical and cultural data from Italy, Brazil, Norway, the Vatican, and many others.

While Svalbard is affected by climate change, it’s likely to affect only the outermost few meters of permafrost in the foreseeable future. Warming is not expected to threaten the stability of the mine. The mine’s proximity to the famous Global Seed Vault, only a mile away, reinforces Svalbard’s status as a stable, very-long-term archive site for humanity’s collective knowledge.

What’s in the 02/02/2020 snapshot
The 02/02/2020 snapshot archived in the GitHub Arctic Code Vault will sweep up every active public GitHub repository, in addition to significant dormant repos as determined by stars, dependencies, and an advisory panel. The snapshot will consist of the HEAD of the default branch of each repository, minus any binaries larger than 100KB in size. Each repository will be packaged as a single TAR file. For greater data density and integrity, most of the data will be stored QR-encoded. A human-readable index and guide will itemize the location of each repository and explain how to recover the data.”

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