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Authored by: Mark F. Russo

A computer file is the first storage location for most laboratory instrument data after it is collected. This is natural because a majority of laboratory instruments are controlled by software running on a computer equipped with a standard hard drive with space available. Although more sophisticated options exist, in practice the computer file is one of the primary tools used by a scientist to store and transfer experimental data.

It is convenient to think of a computer file as a linear sequence of data bytes. The size of a file is equal to the number of bytes in this sequence. Data files can be read by a software program in any order that is convenient, the details of how this is accomplished at a hardware level is abstracted away by the computer’s operating system. Nevertheless, the most common way to read a file is to start at the beginning of the byte sequence and to proceed sequentially through until the end is reached.

Files are generally considered to be durable. This is because a file and its contents usually continue to exist even after a program that created the file quits, or the computer on which the file is stored is turned off. In fact, it is not the file that is durable; it is its storage device that makes it so, for example, a computer’s hard drive. Data in a file that is stored in volatile computer memory will, of course, be gone once power is removed.

Computer files are one of the most important units of currency when it comes to the storage and transfer of laboratory data. To learn more about the humble file, see one of the following topics.

  1. Plain Text Files
  2. Structured Text Files
  3. File Attributes
  4. File Systems