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Issue #651: January 12-18, 2020

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Q: What’s the best long-term storage solution on the market at a price most folks can afford? I use an external hard drive after having problems with DVDs. I hear the new solid-state drives are not as reliable as originally thought.

– Del S.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A: I’m going to go ahead and offer an expanded definition of the word “best” in this context, to make the answers a little more objective. You already gave two important criteria: price and reliability.  Some other things to consider are accessibility (how easy is it to get to your files when you need them), maintenance (periodic steps you must take to maintain data), and finally, compatibility, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.

I think it’s always a wake-up call for people to discover that they can’t just pick any available media, copy their files onto it, and then reasonably expect to put it on a shelf for some undefined quantity of time and then expect the data to still be intact and accessible.  As you mentioned, recordable DVDs have a limited shelf-life.  By modern day standards, their capacity is a bit limited anyway.

The long-term retention ability of flash memory, which includes solid-state drives, or SSDs, has not been adequately established, in this geek’s opinion.  After all, the technology has only been around nearly as long as other media.  I’ve had flash memory sticks suddenly fail for no apparent reason, and once they’re gone, it’s about impossible to recover their contents.  The cause could be anything from a damaged USB connector to something in the flash memory itself.  These reasons alone make flash media for long-term a non-option for me.

The problem of compatibility is one many people never consider.  I used to archive data to tape.  I even had one clever bit of hardware that allowed me to perform data backups to my VCR.  My PC needs outgrew both of those options.  Do you remember MFM and RLL hard drives?  Probably not, but these were some of the very early interface types used to connect hard drives to PCs.  Eventually, these went away, along with ability to access that hardware, and thus, to access the data stored on them.  I could see the same thing happening to SATA or USB eventually.  Who knows what some engineer in some lab is dreaming up at this very minute that will make your favored interface obsolete?

Then there’s maintenance issues.  I’ve said it before in this column that every single hard drive will eventually fail.  It’s just a question of when it will happen.  Hopefully the failure will occur at some point long after you’re done using the drive. If you’re using a disk array for your long term data storage, it is up to you to periodically replace aging drives with new ones to protect your data.

Only one solution that I can think of meets all of the physical criteria of reliability, accessibility, maintenance, and compatibility, and that’s cloud storage.  A reputable cloud storage company performs regular maintenance on their storage media for you, which in-turn provides reliability.  Compatibility becomes a non-issue, because it doesn’t really matter to you what kind of a device is being used to hold your data, and it’s up to the company to keep pace with technology.  Accessibility is actually improved over device-specific options, since all that you need is an Internet connection and your login credentials to access your files from anywhere.  The one trade-off here is cost. It’s difficult for me to discuss specifics because prices vary widely depending on the level of service and your space needs. Many cloud services offer some amount of storage space for free and/or introductory rates to allow you to try the service to see if it’s the right fit for you.  As in so many things, you get what you pay for, and when it comes to your irreplaceable data files, only you can decide what their long-term accessibility is worth.

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