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Data storage lifespans: how long will media really last?

The sad truth about data storage is that no medium for data storage will last forever. Most of them are replaced by a new storage method before long. But just how long will your favourite storage method last? How long do you have before you need to copy the information over to a new form?

Remember that there are always exceptions to the general rules. Just because a manufacturer claims a media device will last a certain amount of time doesn’t mean it will. It just means it can. Whether it’s under warranty or past, all bets are off and any of these storage methods can fail for any number of reasons. Lifespan depends on everything from environmental factors to usage rates to component quality and manufacturing. Thus, the figures here are very general guidelines. The only true way to protect data is to have multiple copies of everything, and the best way to do that is to invest in a good backup and recovery solution.

Magnetic tape

Magnetic tape can either lose data by losing its magnetic charge (any magnetically charged storage medium will eventually lose its magnetic charge and subsequently its data), or when the layers of the tape start to separate. According to a handful of sources (www.ehow.com/about_6329972_product-life-cycle-cassette-tapes.html, Wikipedia, and Searchdatabackup.com), manufacturers claim that tape can last up to 30 years. This can make it a useful medium for archiving, but magnetic tapes will last that long only under absolutely optimum environmental conditions.

That means you need to keep magnetic tapes in a place where both humidity and temperatures are stable. A more realistic lifespan for magnetic tape is about 10 to 20 years - they are more susceptible to wear and tear if used frequently.

Cassette tape

Since cassette tapes and data tapes are very similar, their lifespans are similar to that of magnetic tapes. Some have been known to wear out quickly due to excessive use. Others last upwards of 30 years. Lifespan really depends on the variety of factors we’ve mentioned. A safe bet is that a cassette tape lasts between 10 and 20 years.

Nintendo Entertainment System video game cartridge

Older NES games didn’t have memory to save a game’s progress. Instead, you would earn passcodes to skip to various levels as you progressed. Eventually video game cartridges were given small batteries that powered the memory that saved progress in the game. Anybody who still owns an NES system with some memory-capable cartridges will probably run into trouble saving games as the cartridges get older. Since the memory relies on batteries, a lot of game progress can be lost due to failing batteries. Batteries last only about 10 years. The same is true of Super Nintendo and Gameboy cartridges. Batteries will last somewhere around 10 years, but can be replaced to give more years of enjoyment.

Floppy disk

This one is really tricky. Research shows that floppy disks were never super reliable, and some didn’t even work properly right out of the package. I’ve seen numbers saying the lifespan of floppy disks is three to five years, while others claim they can last 10 to 20 years or even indefinitely.

Since floppy disks utilise magnetic storage (like tape), it’s safe to say that eventually the magnetism will wear out around the same time a tape’s would (10 to 20 years). That’s if the cheap, flimsy plastic casing on the disk survives that long. It seems that some floppy disks have lasted for a considerable length of time, though the storage method was largely replaced by compact disks and hard drives before degradation of the magnetic field became an issue.

CD and DVD

According to the US National Archives, CDs and DVDs have similar lifespans. Generally, unrecorded (blank) CDs and DVDs have a shelf-life of five to 10 years. The experiential life expectancy of recorded CDs and DVDs is between two and five years, though based on manufacturers’ claims, 10 to 25 years, or even longer, isn’t unprecedented. Using very conservative numbers will reduce the risk of losing data.

These numbers also depend on environmental factors and how often the disc us used. Any optical media is extremely susceptible to damage because there is little protection on the readable surface—think how many of your CDs have been scratched through regular use, it happens to all of us.

Blu-Ray

Verbatim writeable Blu-ray disks come with a lifetime warranty, though I couldn’t find any reliable info on how long they supposedly retain data (or how long other brands of Blu-ray discs last). Under prime environmental conditions, they supposedly last considerably longer than CDs and DVDs because the method for recording data results in more durable storage, but even though they likely last quite a bit longer, they’re still optical media, which means they’re susceptible to scratching, high temperatures and sunlight.

M-Disc

The M-Disc is an optical media storage disc that is a supposedly ‘permanent storage solution’. There are claims that it may last up to 1,000 years, even in the face of environmental damage caused by scratching and high temperatures. While the M-Disc is a new format, it can be used with any standard DVD drive to read information, but since the data is engraved into advanced metals, a special M-Disc-ready drive is required to write it. Since this technology is so new, the 1,000 year lifespan is only theoretical so only time will tell how long these advanced discs will really last.  However they do have some fairly impressive research backing their theories.

Hard disk drives

Most hard disk drives (HDD) last between three and five years before some component fails. That doesn’t always mean the drive is irrecoverably busted. But three to five years is still about how long they last, whether you’re talking about an internal drive for a server or desktop, or an external hard disk drive. With all of the moving parts inside, something will eventually stop working. But as with any media storing important data, it’s important to use quality hardware.

Flash storage

Flash storage comes in three different common storage media: Flash drives, SD cards, and solid state drives (SSDs). eHow says flash drives can last up to ten years, but as mentioned on NYTimes.com, flash memory doesn’t usually degrade because of its age, but rather because of the number of write cycles, which means the more you delete and write new information, the more quickly the memory in the device will start to degrade. Since all these devices are similar in that they all use flash memory, they’ll all degrade in a similar fashion. However, one thing is certain: better hardware will pay off. Given the variety of manufacturers, lifespan might differ quite a bit from one device to another, but flash memory devices rated for more write cycles will usually last longer. When it comes to flash drives and SD cards, you’ll likely lose them or ruin them in the washing machine before anything else happens.

Conclusion

When it comes to hardware, skimping to save money won’t pay off in the long run, especially if you lose precious data, which can cost you far more than you would’ve saved. Select the right hardware, and make sure you backup data somewhere else to be sure it lasts, you never know when any type of media might fail.

To review, here are the lifespans of each of the above data storage methods:

Media Estimated Lifespan
Magnetic data (tapes) Up to 10 years
Nintendo cartridge 10-20 years
Floppy disk 10-20 years
CDs and DVDs 5-10 unrecorded, 2-5 recorded
Blu-Ray Not certain, probably over 2-5 recorded
M-Disc 1,000 years (theoretically)
Hard disk 3-5 years
Flash storage 5-10 years or more (depends on write cycles)

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Category: Data Storage SolutionsCompany profile: StorageCraft Technology Corporation provides best-in-class backup, disaster recovery, system migration and data protection solutions for physical, virtual and cloud-based servers, desktops and laptops. StorageCraft delivers software products that reduce downtime, improve security and stability for systems and data and lower the total cost of ownership for servers, desktops and laptops. For more information, please visit www.storagecraft.com.au