This article was first published on 2007-08-17. Due to the age of this article, it is included here for archive purposes only.
Nothing lasts forever and that is definitely true for digital media. As part of your backup & storage strategies you’ll need to consider how long it will last. Let’s review the three primary storage methods: magnetic, optical and online.
Magnetic media includes hard drives, floppy disks and flash storage (jump drives and memory cards). I am going to skip floppy discs, as Apple essentially made these obsolete on the Mac platform beginning in 1998 with the first iMac. Hard drives work conceptually like the old vinyl record turntable. An arm physically touches a spinning disk to read & right data. This movement is why most hard drives develop problems (corruption, bad media, etc.) and eventually fail. Hard drives will last between 5 and 15 years, which is a fairly wide range.
There has been some correlation shown between how often the drive is used and the failure rate, although Google was unable to find any in a massive study they did on their own hard drives. Your best bet is to be sure to back up often and watch the age of your back up hard drive. And yes, that probably means a back up of your back up is in order, at least for your most important files. The good news is that hard drives are ridiculously inexpensive nowadays.
Flash storage (jump drives, memory cards) is the up-and-coming rockstar of storage. It provides extremely fast access times. Imagine turning on your computer and having it boot up almost instantaneously. Apple uses them in the iPod nano, iPod Shuffle and iPhone. Because it has no moving parts, flash storage is more reliable than hard drives. Current data show flash storage lasting longer than hard drives on average, and with fewer problems.
The big disadvantage of flash at the moment is cost. A 64GB flash drive costs about $600 compared to a 1TB (terabyte or 1000 gigabytes) hard drive for less than $400. But the cost continues to drop and we’ll likely see practical prices within the next couple of years.
Another type of storage is optical media. This includes all flavors of CD’s and DVD’s. The longevity of this media is entirely based on the quality of the materials and process used. One thing is for sure – low cost and quality do not go together. Cheap DVD’s and CD’s should not be used for long-term storage. If you plan on storing something long-term, buy good quality, name brand media.
Once-write (CD-R, DVD-R) media will be more reliable than rewritable (CD-RW, DVD-RW). Rewriteable media works by having very thin layers of material that get burned off each time you store something on it. A good quality CD or DVD will last 100-200 years. A poor quality one may last less than 5.
The last type of storage we’ll cover is online. With the prevalence of broadband this is more practical than ever. Theoretically, online storage could last forever assuming the service frequently backs up the data, stays in business, and the concept of "online" remains.
Many services offer online storage with up to 25GB for free. If you need more, you pay a nominal fee, typically by the gigabyte. If you’re a .Mac user you get 10GB as part of the annual fee with additional storage available. MediaMax gives you a whopping 25GB for free. For just $5 a month you get 100GB.
The two most important things to consider when using online storage are privacy and reliability. Will the files you upload be private and secure? Are there any guarantees as to uptime and access to your storage? Do they backup your data?
|Magnetic – Hard Drives||5-15 years||1TB for less than $400||More susceptible of corruption and damaged media. Can easily connect multiple drives for additional storage.|
|Magnetic – Flash||5-15 years or more||64GB for $3000||More reliable but also more expensive. Great portability.|
|Optical (CDs & DVDs)||100-200 years||CDs – 800MB, DVD’s up to 9GB||Don’t go cheap – buy decent quality for long-term storage.|
|Online Storage||Theoretically forever||Virtually unlimited||Privacy, reliability and company solvency|
The lifetime of the media is just one aspect. The life or popularity of its technology is another. The media itself may survive for 100 years, but the technology to read the media may no longer be around. For example the aforementioned floppy disk drives are hard to find nowadays for Macs. I bet the folks with the 10" floppies are scrambling right about now.
The bottom line is your disks and drives will not last the lifetime you want them to and you can’t tell for sure when they will fail. A good plan would be to have multiple copies and to make a fresh copy every 5 years or so, or you could keep them online "in the cloud."
So knowing this, you may want to think about how you want to plan how you store your most prized files and how often you make fresh copies. Given the way Macs help you digitize your life so easily, it would be a shame to lose your treasures in faith that your media will last forever.
What are you doing to preserve your digital memories? Do you have some tips to share? Tell us in the Comments section below!