Cold storage: Inside the GitHub Arctic Code Vault

By Harry Menear
Deep within the arctic circle, GitHub has locked away a complete record of the world’s open source code, designed to last for a thousand years...

Surrounded by raging, ice-cold ocean, home to polar bears and arctic foxes, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is one of the most isolated and inhospitable places you could ask for.

That’s not how the two and a half thousand or so people who live there say, of course. Residents compare it to an “arctic fairy tale”, where the sky dances with radiant colours in the depth of winter, and the sun never sets in July. 

Also, if 2020 keeps on going the way it has, it might be our species’ best hope of clawing its way back if the worst should happen. Svalbard island was already home to the Global Seed Vault - a vital repository of seeds and grains, and one of the best pieces of insurance we have against a global biodiversity collapse. “The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final backup.”

The Seed Vault was set up in 2008, and today is home to more than 1mn varieties of seed and grain. 

More recently, the frozen archipelago became home to another potentially invaluable repository. Rather than seeds, however, this one is home to a wealth of human knowledge. 

“What will software look like 1,000 years from now? What will humanity look like? We can only guess. But we can help make sure that today’s most important building blocks make it to tomorrow,” wrote GitHub’s Shanku Niyogi at the end of 2019, as the company released its plans for the GitHub Arctic Code Vault, a secure storage facility, now home to a vast record of humanity’s open source code. 

On February 2, 2020, GitHub took a snapshot of all active public repositories on its platform. This was the start of a five month journey. 

First, the code was archived by the company’s project partner Piql, which transferred the 21TB of code onto 186 reels of piqlFilm (digital photosensitive archival film), creating a physical copy of our collective digital knowledge. 

Then, the project hit the same massive, crummy snag that the rest of us did: the global pandemic. Flights to the arctic circle were cancelled for months. “Our original plan was for our team to fly to Norway and personally escort the world’s open source code to the Arctic, but as the world continues to endure a global pandemic, we had to adjust our plans,” wrote Julia Metcalf, GitHub’s Director of Strategic Programs, in the company blog

Finally, Svalbard reopened its airport and the code landed in Longyearbyen, a town of a few thousand people on Svalbard, where it was stored overnight. The next morning, it traveled to the decommissioned coal mine GigHub has retrofitted for the purpose, set in the mountain, and then locked away in a chamber deep inside hundreds of meters of permafrost, where it will stay for the next 1,000 years. 

GitHub isn’t the only organisation preoccupied with preserving mankind’s digital knowledge. 

The Internet Archive, the Software Heritage Foundation and Project Silica are working to find long-term storage solutions in case the worst should happen. 


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