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.