How to avoid obsolete storage hell

Don't get suckered into using a backup medium that your next computer won't be able to read.
Written by Rafe Needleman on

In 1987, I was a dBase II programmer for a structural engineering firm. The computers of the day weren't terribly reliable (some things don't change), so I backed up my work regularly onto 10MB Iomega Bernoulli disks. I also thought I might want to check out my work at a future date, so I filed away the disks.

Recently, I uncovered these disks. They're rather quaint now -- massive 8in.-by-10in. plastic cartridges holding flexible disks inside them -- but they were the height of reliable backup at the time. Today, they're utterly and completely obsolete, best used as serving trays for drinks.

Along with the Bernoulli cartridges, I uncovered more old Iomega disks: a few 44MB Bernoulli Box II disks (mini-versions of the original -- only some 5in. across), a solitary 1GB Jaz drive cartridge and about two dozen Zip disks of the 100MB and 250MB variety.

Am I a sucker for media that's doomed to become outdated, or is it just that I fall for the siren call of Iomega? In truth, all media eventually becomes obsolete (want to buy my old Joni Mitchell LPs?); it just seems that some wither and die faster than others. Which brings us to the question we should all be asking ourselves: what's going to happen to the CD-ROMs and the DVD-Rs we're using to archive our precious data? Are they doomed to becoming useless, except as coasters, too?

Putting aside the issue of whether DVDs will be readable at all in 20 years (the metal oxides in DVDs can rust), there's the simple progression of technology and storage at work. At one point floppy disks were ubiquitous, but hardly anybody uses them anymore, because you can hardly fit anything on them -- a 1.4MB floppy disk can't hold a single uncompressed digital photograph from today's advanced cameras. Even an 8.5GB double-layer DVD is doomed to the same fate.

So how do you stay ahead of the storage curve?

1. Avoid Iomega media
Iomega's proprietary storage solutions are dangerous. Each new technology (Bernoulli, Jaz, Zip, Rev) has some good combination of speed, capacity, and low cost going for it -- along with one huge downside: your next computer is unlikely to support the format. These proprietary formats work acceptably for day-to-day backup, but they are absolute death for archival storage -- or for transferring files for that matter, since very few computers have compatible drives installed (for a brief period the Zip drive flirted with ubiquity, but it was just a tease).

To Iomega's credit, the company also makes CD and DVD drives, with which I have no beef, and the company offers its own online storage service.

2. While you're at it, watch out for Sony
Here's another company fond of proprietary formats. And I'm not just talking about Betamax. From its go-it-alone flash-memory storage format, Memory Stick (and numerous incomprehensible offshoots), to the MiniDisc music format that seems designed by lawyers, to today's UMD format for the new PSP gaming machine, Sony seems determined to sell a lot of media that won't be useful when the next generation of gadgets ships -- even if the gadgets are Sony's own.

3. Stick with standards
You will save yourself time, money and aggravation if you choose storage media that has broad industry support and that is sold and manufactured by more than one vendor. No format lasts forever -- even DVDs will someday be obsolete -- but the more vendors that support the format, the less likely you are likely to find yourself hanging onto a nice, round, shiny thing that also just happens to hold hostage your doctoral thesis.

4. Skip removable media altogether
Or here's a thought: consider removable media simply a convenience for transporting data, not a place to store your data over the long term. Hard disk storage right now is incredibly cheap, and it's getting cheaper. My current personal data-continuity plan is to put all the data I have onto my PC's hard disk and back it up to an external drive, as well. When I get my next computer, I'll just copy the data onto it, and so on. Sure, that's a lot to copy, but each new generation of disk drive can pretty easily swallow the contents of a drive made a few years before it.

By migrating my data with each new PC, I also make sure to avoid getting stuck with a bunch of media that I don't have a reader for, and I ensure that the data I'm storing is fresh -- not slowly decaying, rusting or demagnetising.

5. Another reason to skip media
Furthermore, the growth of broadband networks is making the act of transporting files (except movies, for now) by disk anachronistic. I hardly ever use removable media, but I do carry around a little USB flash drive when I need to physically transfer files. Someday that'll be obsolete too, but I'm not storing data on it for long, so that's OK.

In truth, I do have a stack of DVD-Rs in my fire safe. I consider these discs to be storage of the last resort, but I can't imagine entrusting my entire digital archive to hard disks today, even with a separate backup drive. I suspect this fear will abate at some point -- probably when I deposit my external backup drive in the fire safe.

In fact, somebody ought to manufacture a fireproof hard disk that you can hide in your house and bolt to the floor so that it won't go up in smoke and can't be stolen. Now that's data security.


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