First thing’s first: Like everything else in the universe, your data is going to die eventually.
Surprised? I don’t blame you. In this digital day and age—in which the internet never forgets, and technology is advancing at an uncomfortably fast rate—it’s easy to forget that nothing actually lasts forever.
Personal photos, music playlists, medical documents, school records… There are plenty of important files we have on our computers that, while we do not access them on the regular, we’d be gutted to lose all the same.
Lest such a tragedy occur, why not consider data archiving?
I’m not talking about simply putting the files on a USB or sticking them into the cloud here. Oh no. Long-term storage requires much more research, preparation, and maintenance than your run-of-the-mill backup plan.
And to save you the headache of having to do all of that yourself, I’ve prepared a handy little guide for you!
By the time you’re done reading it, you’ll have all the information you need to put together a foolproof preservation plan for all of your most precious data.
Archive vs. Backup
Before I say anything further, I want to make this clear: backing up data is not the same as archiving it.
While backup is meant to last a few years, data archiving is meant to last a few decades (minimum!). Due to these two very different goals, very different approaches need to be taken.
What works for backup typically does not work for archiving, and what works for archiving typically does not work for backup. As such, making a distinction between the two is essential when considering your methods of digital data storage.
Backup is primarily used for disaster recovery. You know, in case you spill your morning coffee on your laptop, or your hard drive decides to up and end it all. It functions so that should such disaster strike, you’ll have all your files tucked safely offsite in the cloud and the external hard drive in your work desk (if you follow the 3-2-1 backup strategy that is! You do, don’t you?).
Backup is for files you would need to retrieve soon as possible if something goes awry with your computer. Files that you regularly update, and that you couldn’t go more than a few days without.
Archiving is nothing like that.
Archive storage is for inactive data. Data that you typically write or upload only once, and that you read or need only from time to time. Think primarily personal data such as old family photos, birth certificates, your master’s thesis, and the like.
In a nutshell, it’s important data that you want—and sometimes need—to hold onto, but that you don’t need present on your computer all the time.
So don’t keep it there!
By employing an archiving strategy, all (or most) of your inactive data can be moved out of your systems and safely stored away, and the performance of your active data can be optimized. It’s a win-win!
There’s a whole slew of long term data storage options, and each has a laundry list of pros and cons. Which one you choose depends on your needs, how much data you’re storing, what kind of data you’re storing, and so on, but the overall goal is the same: You want something that is cost-effective and that allows you to easily access your data when needed.
I know what you’re thinking.
“Who on earth uses tape storage anymore? I thought that went the way of the dinosaurs decades ago.”
Surprise! Magnetic tape storage is still alive and well. In fact, it’s even enjoying a bit of a resurgence in popularity as of late, with more and more people and businesses opting to use the retro storage medium thanks to its durability and reliability. Even Google uses it!
And why wouldn’t they? Magnetic tapes can store massive amounts of data, can be recorded over and repeatedly reused, are budget friendly, and are proven to last ages!
There are some cons to using magnetic tapes, of course. Unlike more modern technology, which employs random access memory, a tape is strictly sequential. Also, its long retrieval times leave something to be desired, and data quality tends to take a nosedive around the 15-year mark.
In short, as long as you don’t store your tapes next to a giant box of magnets, tapes are your best bet for archiving data for the long run.
Average cost: $30 per tape
Average storage capacity: 6 TB per tape
Retrieval speed: 1 TB per hour per tape drive
Power efficiency: Consumes no electricity
Lifespan: 10 to 20 years
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, optical media are discs that have been both written and read with laser technology, such as CD and DVD.
One con to using optical media as your archival medium is that it’s one that is most susceptible to being gravely affected by environmental factors—such as exposure to light, dust, heat and pressure—and overuse. It is also extremely prone to damage due to the little amount of protection that it gets from the coating on its readable surface. I mean, who here hasn’t scratched a CD?
That said, if optical media is burned properly, stored in jewel cases, and treated with care, it is a good low-cost archiving option that is easy to use and doesn’t take up much storage space.
Just remember that when it comes to CDs and DVDs, you get what you pay for. Avoid cheap bulk buys that come in stacks or “cakes”, which tend to be of poor quality. Instead, spring for special discs made by big manufacturers specifically for archiving.
Average cost: $2.80 per CD; $3.10 per DVD
Average storage capacity: 700 MB per CD; 4.7 GB per DVD
Retrieval speed: 7.8 MB per second per CD; 10.56 MB per second per DVD
Power efficiency: Consumes no electricity
Lifespan: Manufacturers boast that optical media made specifically for archiving can last anywhere from 30 to over 300 years, but given the fact that the technology has only been available for a little over 30 years, it’s difficult to confirm. I’d take a more conservative guess of 10 years for a recorded piece of optical media—longer if properly stored and handled!
Hard disk drive
The cloud is on the rise, but hard disk drives are still the go-to backup solution for those who prefer having a physical copy of their files as a preventive measure against data loss.
While better suited to backup of active data, a hard disk drive can still work as a short-term solution for archival storage. Emphasis on the ‘short-term’.
Why? Because hard disk drives are designed to be a temporary medium, with most having a lifespan of a mere four years.
You could certainly try to unplug your hard drive and store it in a dust-free and temperature-controlled area, but you’re playing with fire, as stored drives are notorious for not spinning up once reconnected.
And I’m not talking about trying to store it for a decade here—I’m talking about attempting to store it for even just a year.
My advice? If there is data you want to archive, put it on your hard drive, but check it regularly for data degradation and spin up, and look for a more durable, long-lasting solution as soon as you can.
Average cost: $0.06 per GB
Average storage capacity: 1 to 3 TB
Retrieval speed: It depends on the model. Older models average 1.5 GB per second while the newer ones are more in the range of 6 GB per second.
Power efficiency: Consumes no electricity
Lifespan: Three to four years
I know that online storage is all the rage right now, and it’s a great option for regular backup, but I would not recommend it for archiving.
Why you ask?
Because storing your archive data in the cloud is risky—more so than any other option on this list.
One, you don’t have physical access to the hardware on which your precious files are stored, which means that need to trust your chosen service’s ability to properly test and maintain its servers.
Two, you’re entirely reliant on the financial health of the service you’re using. If, by some misfortune, the service goes under, you have absolutely no guarantee that you’ll be able to retrieve your data.
That said, with services such as iDrive, Microsoft Azure and Amazon beginning to introduce archival storage options and put sufficient security measures and guarantees in place, the cloud is becoming a more and more attractive long-term data storage solution.
Average cost: Usually somewhere between $0.25 to $12 per GB per month, depending on the cloud provider
Average storage capacity: Again, it depends on what kind of cloud storage you choose. Online storage services like Dropbox usually ranges between 100 to 500 GB. Providers such as Backblaze, however, have a staggering range of price plans and storage allowances, with some even offering unlimited space (though 1 to 2 TB is more common).
Retrieval speed: Instant
Power efficiency: None, as it’s stored offsite
Lifespan: That’s up to your cloud provider, now isn’t it?
Long-Term Storage Tips
Now I’ve got you up to speed on the different kinds of storage mediums, but the planning doesn’t end there! I’ve got a couple more tips for you to ensure your personal data archiving plan runs smooth as silk.
Be picky about what you archive.
Doing so will help to prevent overloading your chosen medium and to reduce overall cost.
Besides the obvious, such as health records and school degrees, limit your other archival data to things that are important but that you need only in case of emergencies, as well as things that you’d like to preserve for future generations.
Directly engage in the curating of your data.
Proper archiving requires maintenance, upkeep, and regular testing. Take care to check your hard drive disks and CDs for scratches or degradation, as well as the files themselves for readability.
Also, remember to take note of the age of your chosen storage option, and switch to a newer version when it’s nearing the end of its life expectancy.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, nothing lasts forever. There is always the risk of technological failure or corruption. But, if you curate properly, you maximize your chances of your data staying readable and accessible 10, 20, and even 50 years or more down the road!
Use more than one archive medium.
Putting all of your eggs in one basket is never a good idea.
Each storage solution mentioned above risks going belly-up—sometimes without warning—so instead of relying on just one, choose two or three.
You’ll sleep better at night knowing that even if, say, your offsite cloud provider is hit by disaster, your irreplaceable files will still be safe and sound on onsite data tape.
Pay attention to new storage and archival options.
You never know when your current method will go out-of-date, so it’s best to be aware of new options on the market and take full advantage of them.
Are you one of those tried-and-true people who don’t think such a thing is necessary?
Yeah, I thought so.
File format is key.
Files forms such as ‘.docx’ or ‘.dot’ are program-specific, which means that if the program that supports them has ceased to exist when you try to open your archived data decades down the road, you may not be able to.
To be on the safe side, save things as raw files or as open documents. That way, even if your data’s current form becomes obsolete, your data itself won’t!