Data Storage - Keeping Your Memories Safe

Your wedding day is over, the tuxes have been returned, the honeymoon has been honeymooned, and the photographer has come by to deliver your wedding photos. Hooray! You pop the USB stick into your computer and browse through the photos, reliving the day, remembering things you'd forgotten, reminiscing your favourite moments, catching up on the things you missed, and seeing what happened on that day in a new and beautiful light.

 Cute, but not to be trusted.

Cute, but not to be trusted.

Now what? Unplug the USB stick and hang it around your neck so you'll never lose it? Encase it in amber for future generations to find? Well... no. Even if you don't lose it, your data won't last forever on a USB stick. Or a CD. Or a hard drive. It's time for some bad news: it won't last forever anywhere.

I'm going to warn you now about what lies ahead in this blog. I might get technical. I might get wordy. I might make words up. I might use some super lame free stock photography. I might accidentally delete whole paragraphs and then hastily retype them in ways that make no sense. I recognize that this is a tough topic, but it's an important one, so try to bear with me.

Let's go over the numbers (and problems) before we go over the solutions.

 Don't. Just don't.

Don't. Just don't.

How long will your data last?

Floppy disk: 2-5 years

Burned CD/DVD: 2-10 years

Burned Blue Ray: 20-100 years (as yet unproven)

USB Thumb Drive: 2-10 years

Hard Disk Drive: 2-5 years

Solid State Drive: 3 months to 5 years

Just to make matters worse, these numbers can drop dramatically if exposed to excessive heat (flash drives will only last a few weeks), direct sunlight (burned disks, including Blue Rays, can be ruined in hours), or strong magnets (looking at you floppies and hard disk drives). Which is to say, don't leave anything important in a pile of magnets on the dash of your car in the summer. Although I'd love to see that, you'll likely regret it.

 Rugged yet fragile.

Rugged yet fragile.

And to make matters even worser (yes, I said it), these are just statistical probabilities. Your hard disk drive could fail in just a few minutes, or it could last for 50 years! "Now hold on a minute!" I can hear you saying. "I've been using this (insert device name) for 5 years and it hasn't lost anything!" This is because of things called error correction and sector reallocation. If a computer comes across a tiny part of its drive that isn't working, if it's small enough, it can usually salvage the data that that little dot was in the middle of, move it somewhere else on the disk, and then mark off that spot to never be used again.

If you're thinking about longer term storage, though, this becomes problematic. A hard drive or thumb drive in the closet doesn't get checked for errors regularly, so as a drive develops bad sectors, there is no process in place to tend to its wounds. The next time you plug it in, you could be missing a large portion of data, or find it won't even run at all! Solid State Drives are even worse for this, as the longer they spend inactive, the less stable their storage medium becomes. Does that mean that running back up drives regularly or even all the time is a better idea? Not necessarily, as the likelihood of total drive failure increases with usage time.

Is all hope lost? Is there no way to save your precious memories? Let me introduce you to a little thing known as...

The 3-2-1 rule

This catchy little rule of thumb is by no means my own invention, but it is something you should always keep in mind. The rule goes as follows: you should always have at least three copies of your data, in at least two different forms, one of which is "offsite" in another location.

Why three copies? Let me tell you a little story about something that happened to an imaginary fellow named Les. He had his hard drive completely backed up on an external drive and had "nothing to worry about". Then one day, he noticed that some files were missing on his laptop, did a scan, and found many bad sectors. Uh oh! Les then plugged in his external hard drive to replace this missing and corrupted data. He was greeted with a file directory containing nothing but a D:\ . The external hard drive had failed even more catastrophically than the one in his laptop since the last time he had used it (only a week before). After days of tinkering and scouring of the drives for hidden, partial, or deleted files, only about half of the data could be recovered in the end. Wes, I mean, Les learned his lesson, and now practices the 3-2-1 rule, and then some.

 If your screen looks like this, you should probably call someone.

If your screen looks like this, you should probably call someone.

The digital age

As our lives become increasingly digital, more of our memories and important documents are stored as 1's and 0's, so it becomes all the more important to keep all those things safe. Just as it is standard procedure to keep two copies of your will, one in your keeping, and one with someone you trust, your digital bits are now the important documents that require special arrangements to safeguard. In an instant, everything you've been saving for decades can disappear into electric noise, never to be seen again. I know someone who lost two years of photos of their children because the only place they were stored was on a flash memory card. The things that are truly important to us these days can evaporate so quickly.

What can You do?

 Turn, turn, turn

Turn, turn, turn

1) Buy an external hard drive with included backup software.

There are some great options for under $100 from Western Digital and Seagate that you can use to easily back up your entire hard drive from time to time. Keep these drives in a safe place. If you can't afford a fire safe (small ones can be had for under $100), then put it in a waterproof ziplock bag in a cool, dry location in your house, and if possible make another copy in a similar location in the house of someone you trust. Occasionally update and swap the drives back and forth to keep them current.

2) Get into the cloud

I know this can be scary for many people. Recent stories about celebrity iCloud "hacks" (actually just the result of easily guessed passwords and security questions) or the vTech data breach (trusting a toy company with your personal data?) might make one wary. In the grand scheme of things though, if you go with a trusted company with a solid track record, using a strong password, your data is safer with them than it is on your computer in your bag or in your purse, or even just in your house. Amazon Cloud Drive and Carbonite are both trusted names in backup. You will have to pay a monthly or yearly fee, but that's because they are providing a quality service.

 The LED's make it faster. Or something.

The LED's make it faster. Or something.

Be wary of "free" online backup plans, and read the fine print, of which there will be a lot. Sometimes you're actually signing over the rights to the snooping of your data, or the right for them to permanently compress/degrade all your photos (like Google Photos' supposedly unlimited free storage). Apple's iCloud won't compress your photos, but you'll likely have to move out of the free tier and pay for the amount of storage required to store all your photos.


Making changes

All this might sound difficult to you. Difficult to accomplish, or even difficult to understand. I might have just given you reason to worry instead of giving you the power to help yourself. While I hope that I have helped point you in the right direction, please don't just read this and consider yourself caught up on everything. As I said previously, we're now living in a digital age, and it's important that you try to learn about these things and understand them for yourself. To stay on top of where your data is going and who has access to it. To think about what would happen in the event of an emergency or unexpected failure.

Talk to someone who knows, read up on it yourself, learn whatever you can, and take control of your digital destiny. Peace of mind and lasting digital memories are waiting for you on the other side.