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A backup plan: What type of data storage works for you?

Posted March 9th, 2010 by Adrian Santangelo

Almost everyone who has some form of digital storage also has something they never want to lose. Unfortunately, recent statistics show 31 percent of computer users have lost all of their files due to events beyond their control.

Don’t want to become a statistic? The answer is to back up.

That will be the topic for my next column. Before you can understand the answer, you first must understand the problems associated with the forms of digital storage.

Digital data are commonly stored in one of three forms: magnetic, flash and optical.

“Magnetic” refers to any magnetic media, such as the average hard drive or floppy disk. This is the most common storage method. Almost every PC uses this as the main form of data storage.

“Flash” refers to any non-volatile storage method that can be electronically erased and reprogrammed. It includes USB flash/thumb drives, compact media commonly used in digital cameras, and solid-state hard drives, which are starting to appear in many netbooks.

“Optical” refers to data stored on any optically readable medium, such as CDs or DVDs, and also includes the newer Blu-ray format.

Each method has its pros and cons.

Though the most popular, magnetic storage is also the most prone to failure. Floppy disks are no longer widely used for many reasons, one of which is their ability to deteriorate rapidly over time. Hard drives suffer from the same flaw — although built-in electronic error correction solves much of this, giving you a longer period of usable life.

Magnetic storage can also suffer from mechanical failures. Like a car, a hard drive has many moving parts that rely on precise movements throughout the design. If a single point of failure occurs, the whole thing can go down in flames.

The major “pro” for magnetic media is capacity compared to price, and ease of use. Hard drives are astoundingly cheap compared to just a few years ago, and every operating system includes an easy method to use the storage they provide.

Flash memory storage is likely to become “the next big thing.” The big holdup is its limited capacity and price when compared to its magnetic counterparts. While a standard, 250 gigabyte desktop hard drive will run you about $60, the cheapest solid-state drive of the same size costs more than 10 times as much.

Capacities are increasing and prices are dropping. That, coupled with the fact that flash media have no moving parts and can retain information for 10-plus years, makes flash desirable. Durability alone has made it the popular choice for mobile electronics. Every cell phone uses flash storage. It’s certainly the data storage technology to watch.

Optical data storage, like its siblings, has grown in capacity over the last 10 years, though not with the same exponential rate we’ve seen with the other two forms. The most recent addition to the family is Blu-ray, allowing 10 times the amount of data to be stored than a DVD.

Optical storage isn’t as user-friendly, frequently requiring separate software for its use. In addition, physical storage can become a nuisance.

On the plus side, the cost-to-capacity equation leans in favor of optical storage, making it the most cost effective.

Data retention, according to manufacturers, is said to be up to 100 years for the optical format. More realistic estimates put it closer to 40 years, though this doesn’t account for things like atmospheric changes and handling. Optical discs are very prone to physical damage, including scratches and even fingerprints.

The other concern is sustainability. In 40 years, will the hardware and interfaces even exist to read the DVDs of today?

No matter what media you choose, upgrades are going to be vital to keep data available in the future. For this reason, retention rates really don’t mean as much.

Now that you have some background on data storage methods, you should be able to better assess which works best for you. I encourage you to stay tuned next week for data backup methods.

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