How Long Does Backup Media Last?

Something interesting to think about is how long data will last, because as everyone knows, nothing is forever.

Here’s a rundown on how long you can expect the media you use to last.

"Media" defined: Data storage on something physical that you own, be it hard disk, optical, flash or tape. I don’t list floppy diskettes because nobody uses those anymore.

Assumptions:

  • You are using the media a minimum once per week and when not in use is disconnected and/or unpowered from the electronic mechanism it uses to write data to and stored (ex: you take the DVD out of the drive, put it in a case and store it).
  • You are physically storing your media in a dry place at room temperature (72° F / 22° C).

Hard Disk

A production-use hard disk usually has a life span of 3 to 5 years. Some last longer, but trust me there is a reason why most hard drive manufacturers usually do not have hardware warranties that go beyond 5 years.

A hard disk used for backup purposes lasts longer because it isn’t used as often. You can assume the HDD will last at least 7 years. But bear in mind that is an assumption.

As a short-term backup solution, hard disks are a good choice. As a long-term solution, not so much given their relatively short life span.

For more information, this really old (but still relevant) post from our own PCMech forums will give you tons of useful info concerning the life span of a hard disk drive.

Optical

Optical media that you use is CD, DVD, the now-defunct HD DVD and Blu-ray.

Assuming you have a decent CD/DVD burner drive, the life span of optical media almost exclusively depends on how well the disc was made.

Premium-grade media can easily last 10 years. And no, you won’t find it at Wal-Mart. The best possible writable CD/DVD media you can buy is manufactured by Taiyo Yuden. A Google search will reveal where to get some if so inclined. It is lauded as the best of the best. That’s because it is. And yes, you’ll pay good money for it too.

For the rest of us, there’s name brand and generic optical media. You can expect name brand (Memorex, Verbatim, etc.) to last about 5 years. Some of you out there will get 7 to 10 but I personally wouldn’t put that much faith into this type of media.

Concerning generic, the plastic may separate from the aluminum in less than a year. Not a good choice.

With optical media, yes, you get what you pay for concerning life span. No question.

Tip: It is better to store optical discs in jewel cases instead of books. Natural problems (like pages of discs sticking to each other from sitting there too long) can happen with those fold-out books.

Flash

It has been speculated that flash based media, such as a USB stick, will last 8 to 10 years easily. This is because there are no moving parts, the heat it generates is minimal and the way it connects and disconnects to a computer is nearly impossible to get wrong (and therefore almost impossible to break).

What most people will encounter with a USB stick in the future is expiring the amount of times data can be written to it or erased before age-related failure. Most USB sticks will allow one million write and/or erase cycles before it cannot be used any longer.

If a USB stick is used as backup media where it is only used once a week, it is highly unlikely you will ever tap that limit.

But the limit age-wise for data retention is stated to be 10 years and no longer at present.

Tip: You might want to use a label-maker and mark the stick with a date 9 years from now (this gives you enough buffer of time from date of manufacture). Who knows? You might still have it then. And you’ll know the stick will soon fail when the date marked is reached.

If you’re thinking, "How can I be sure USB will even be around in nine years?" It will be. Even if it is replaced by another technology, you will still be able to access the data on it somehow.

Think of it this way: Right now nobody uses floppy diskettes any longer, yet you can still buy a floppy diskette drive and disks easily. At worst, USB flash drives will end up like that. Woefully obsolete, but still accessible.

Tape

This is probably going to surprise a few of you, but premium grade tape backup can last 50 years. Sound ridiculous? It’s not. This method of backup is usually only used by large enterprise and government IT centers.

Tape is one of those things that is about as old-school as you can get when it comes to data storage. True, the technology has advanced, the cartridges are built better and the media can store much more and is more reliable, but the method of the way it works is still essentially unchanged.

Tape media is still readily available, but for those looking for the "big guns", what you would want is certified 30-year tape media. The one notch after that is the premium 50-year. Yes, it’s overkill for most people (and wickedly expensive), but if you want something that lasts longer than anything else, tape is basically your only option.

For those who think tape backup is dead as a doorknob, I beg to differ. Maybe it’s dead as a consumer option, but in enterprise it’s still widely used. Maybe you’re not enterprise, but you can use it. In fact, tape is still the best bang for the buck long-term storage media there is.

If you think tape may be right for you, here are a few things you should be aware of:

First, tape decks do require cleaning. The way to clean is with a tape head cleaner cartridge. The heads will need to be cleaned periodically to ensure proper data writes.

Second, transfer speeds are defined differently but you can assume they’re going to be on the slower side. No, they are not molasses-slow as tape drives were years ago because we’ve got USB connectivity now, but it is true they’re not lightning quick, nor have they ever been.

Third, tape is very particular to format. There’s DLT, SDLT, 1/2-inch, LTO, 4mm, 8mm and so on. When shopping around for a deck, pay strict attention to format and how easy (or not easy) it is to acquire media for it.

Will there ever be a long-term backup solution better than tape?

The only media I know of that could potentially outlast tape is the internet itself. But obviously the internet is not physical media. In fact it’s not even physical. The storage of the internet is termed as putting data "in the cloud". However there are more than a few out there that would rather have media stored safely in a closet or attic rather than on some distant server run by someone else.

Chances are you’re more comfortable with the "un-clouded" way. :-)

What’s the most convenient solution right now?

Tape may be the longest lasting, but USB sticks are the most convenient.

You can most likely fit every digital photo you’ve ever taken on a 4GB stick. And that’s under $15 to acquire.

You can most likely fit every email you have on a 2GB stick. And those are under $10.

As long as you remember to swap the sticks out once every 8 to 10 years, you’re in good shape.

That is unless you leave one in your pants pocket and run it thru a wash cycle while doing the laundry. :-)

What do you use for backup media?

Do you use CD/DVDs? USB sticks? Tape? The internet itself? A combination?

Let us know by writing a comment.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the information. A timely warning if ever there was one.

    I use a mix of CHs / DVDs, external HDD (about 4 years old and already has to be coaxed into starting up) and a couple of USB sticks. It’s certainly time to revisite all the older CDs and think about a HDD replacement.

    May you backup last a lifetime

    Max

  2. Yes, same here, many thanks for the really useful info.

    Hal

  3. This is good info on the longevity of the various media. I may need to rethink my strategy. I have a couple of IDE Hard drives that I occasionally hook up as slaves to mass copy everything whenever I get into an organization mood. For daily backup I have started using the cloud through a service called Carbonite. $20 / year for unlimited storage. I recently lost my machine and data recovery was pretty straightforward onto the new one. I will still stick with my HDD (or some other media) backups though especially after reading Rich’s recent article about trusting everything to the cloud and what if the service being used to entrust my data decides to fold.

  4. Stanford Noel says:

    Well folks – silver halide black and white photographs 100 years old are still perfectly useable. More primitive images almost 150 years old are useable. Will any digital media be around in 100 years???

  5. Although I agree with you Rich, there is a media that you have left out but could be considered as a ‘USB Stick’ or flash memory – SSD – Solid State Drive.

    The meantime between failure is over 1.5 Millon hours, now how many read/writes that is I haven’t done the math but a year is 8760 hours.

    So if you want to use something faster than a tape or usb stick then SSD connected to a SATA or IDE interface maybe the best of all worlds. (Higher end -ie: more expensive – SSD’s have dual connections. SATA or IDE with USB).

    As a System Admin I had to take care of a large number of servers that were backed up to tape every night. And we had to certify 1% of those tapes a day. Also because it was a bank the tapes were kept in off site storagae and again we had to certify 1% per month of any tapes over one year old. Tapes for the Banking community have to be kept for 15 years. And of those tapes that were sampled and cerified I nerver saw one failure.

    Slow but persistant for sure.

  6. i want to no what is the best affordable way of keeping data for a time capsule, if i buy a waterproof usb or some other way can some one please help me. this will be used just the one time and will never be used perhaps ever again…

  7. G Johansson says:

    “You can most likely fit every digital photo you’ve ever taken on a 4GB stick. And that’s under $15 to acquire.”

    Well, in todays rapid evoulution when it comes to digital fotography that assumption can be way of the mark. I myself have a 6 year image archive taken with standard compact digital cameras, nothing fancy about the cameras. This is at the moment just below 20GB in size. However, using a fancy SLR instead capturing in RAW can easily amount to gigabytes a month (if not a session).

  8. I agree with G Johansson regarding the size of a photo library and shooting in RAW. I consider myself in the enthusiast range (not shooting professionally), but my 2009Q2 archive is about 20GB or RAW photos. USB sticks may not cut it in those cases, and while I use Tape at work (IT professional), I don’t have an income from photography to justify a tape backup for home.

    Monte above mentioned the SSD drive which is like a USB in that there is no moving parts. These are relatively new (compared to IDE) but are shipping as an option in servers and desktop systems. The only thing I wonder with these (and I stress I wonder, because I have not researched it) is that there is a lot more on board electronics than a USB that would make for a more complex system, and increase the failure rate. That being said, I would still say solid state over moving parts for long term storage. Side by side, sitting on a shelf (not powered) I would say the regular hard drive has a better chance of failing (arm locking into place, platters oxidizing, etc)…

    That all being said, there are some breakthroughs into storage technology that aim at dramatically increasing the amount of data you can store in a given space… For now, I may do a few SSD drives and overlap by a year or two…

  9. james braselton says:

    HI THERE IF YOU ARE RIGHT 8,760 HOURS PER YEAR OUT OF 1.5 MILLION HOURS IS 171.23 YEARS OR 2 TIMES THE HUMMAN LIFE CYCLE

  10. I happen to know that Reel to Reel will last well over 60 years and go through 2 total floods and still 100%. They are the Masters for Radio station media. As for Grade? I myself have no idea. I also happen to have access to Reel to Reel that is confirmed close to 75 years old and some have splicing.
    Grampa lived to a ripe age of 104, and reel to reel is all he used. And we know that he was using r2r recorder since at least age 30 and he died over 30 years ago. so do the math. It is Magnetic and so unless it gets by a demag it lasts.

    As for Floppy disk – both the 1.44 and 1.2 they too are magnetic recorded media
    Those Old 5 1/4″ Floppies actually will hold more data than you might think

    What was Never mentioned here is information about the hard Drive itself.

    A hard drive’s space is critical,
    take for instance a 40 meg hard drive. (don’t laugh)
    It is all about how much space is allocated

    I can take the Exact Same Doc from a 40 MB Physical Hard Drive and place it on a 120 MB HDD. That same Doc changes in size.
    Take that same doc now and place it on a 1.0 GB Hard Drive – that same Doc from the 40 MB has dramatically Increased, BUT Nothing has been added to it. Instead of it being a 7kb document, it is now a 700 kb
    Why? It is the Allocation of the amount of space that that any file./doc can use.
    You take that Same Doc that was 7 kb and place it on a One Terrabyte and it will be enormous,

    • Back in the day when Mac OS was not OS, is was SS System Software 7..1.1 you cold get a software that Allocated how much space the hard drive could use.

      With that software it was easy to make a 80 mb hdd hold more than a 2.1 GB hard drive Not Allocated.

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