10 Years of PDF/A: Has It Delivered on the Promise of Digital Archiving?

November 4, 2013

Crawford TechnologiesBy Tim Nelms, CrawfordTech

I recall delivering a presentation at The British Standards Institution 2nd Annual Conference on Effective Electronic Preservation and Information Management Practices back in June 2006. In a joint presentation with Adobe, we set out the case for PDF/A as a medium for long term preservation of documents, particularly customer communications sent out in their millions by banks, insurers, utility companies and government.

In the intervening years, there has been great progress made in establishing PDF/A as a de-facto and de-rigueur standard, and now that I am with Crawford Technologies, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on how far we have come since then.

The questions were then as they are today:

  • How do you preserve an electronic document today or 30 years from today?
  • How do you preserve both paper-based and electronic records in a consistent format?
  • How do you provide consistency in your archives and how do you support search and navigation?

10 YearsThe fact is that PDF/A evolved out of real-world challenges, where there were no formal standards for digital archiving (the choices at that time were native formats, proprietary formats or unsuitable open standards). I was frequently asked by our customers at this time whether it would be better to use format XML or TIFF or format XYZ as an archive format.

The fact is that although open standards existed none of them did quite such a good job of full-fidelity archiving of content using raster, vector, fonts and meta-data as PDF/A was developed to do. PDF/A benefitted greatly from a strong custodian (Adobe), community driven development, a market for tools & utilities, the standards process and open sourcing.

For those of you unfamiliar with PDF/A, it was developed by Adobe and first published in 1993 evolving out of Adobe PostScript and the Adobe Imaging Model. PDF introduced a standard way to communicate and present data in print and on-screen. As John Warnock, founder of Adobe, said in 1992, “What companies need…is a way to communicate document across a wide range of machine configurations, operating systems and communications networks (over time).”

PDF became a publicly available specification created and maintained by Adobe and was widely supported by other vendors. PDF documents could be viewed and printed consistently across operating systems and devices and the commercial model had a free “reader,” but users paid for the tools that created the documents. PDF preserves fonts, images, graphics, and layout of any source document in the full fidelity of the original. As PDF evolved it incorporated more interactive features like scripting and forms that were designed around the need for interactive web-based content. However, at the core of PDF remained the ability to reliably store and view a document.

PDF/A (the “A” being for archiving), recognized this core capability of PDF and defined a subset of features that were designed for long-term preservation of documents and some of the wilder features like scripting were removed. As a result, PDF/A was endorsed by the International Standards Organisation under ISO TC 171/SC 2 WG 5 as a standard for digital preservation and guaranteed compatibility into the future and reliable.

Why Does PDF/A Matter?
In my experience, PDF/A has been proven to lower the cost of archiving infrastructure, because it:

  1. Removes the need to manage multiple formats
  2. Reduces the digital footprint of archives and enables viewing by virtually anyone with a reader.

EMEA Archiving DivisionIt actually increases the value of archive document and lends them towards all kinds of use in opening up information for public use – the value alone that PDF/A has brought to improvements in business process to all sizes of public and private sector organizations is incalculable.

PDF/A has also proven an excellent vehicle for risk management because ISO’s ratification secures long-term viability of PDF/A archives. Complimentary control systems (archives) can ensure documents reach the standards required for evidential enquiry by regulatory, legal and law enforcement agencies.

I’ll give you a few examples of the benefits I have seen PDF/A deliver in customers I have worked with:

---A National Insurance Provider in the US adopted PDF/A for long-term preservation of customer communications moving away from native print-stream formats like AFP and Metacode. To date, the archive holds over a billion policy documents and PDF/A is the standard for digital preservation.

---A National Bank in France adopted PDF/A for long-term preservation of invoices required by EU VAT regulations. To date, the archive contains nearly half a billion invoices, which can be retrieved in less than two seconds. For this bank, PDF/A underlines an enterprise archive strategy based on PDF/A for transactional information.

---A National Utility Company in Spain migrated an IBM mainframe archive with 10 years of AFP reports converted to PDF/A. In doing so they reduced archiving costs by migrating away from costly proprietary technologies and provided a platform for long-term preservation of documents.

My belief is that the PDF/A standard has had a tremendous impact – not just on increased expectations for organizations to meet common archiving format and process standards, but also a strong positive impact on the ability for organizations to increase the value of archived content, while lowering the cost of their archiving infrastructure, and better meet compliance requirements.

I think Adobe has to take great huge credit for everything they have contributed the PDF standard and to companies like CrawfordTech who continue to pioneer innovations in print workflows and archiving solutions.

So has it delivered on the prospect of digital archiving – well yes it has, but there is still so much more to be done to bring the benefits of PDF/A too every company that currently has an archive. I look forward to seeing PDF/A deliver even more value to my customers over the next 10 years.

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Tim Nelms is with Crawford Technologies, business development and alliances, EMEA Archiving Division.

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