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Data Storage Reliability – What to Choose so You Don’t Regret it Later

It goes without saying that the amount of data we create is continually increasing. Methods of storing it are numerous and hard drive manufacturers are tempting us with greater capacity, speed, and – for a change – lower prices. So what storage medium should you choose?

What are the Choices?

  1. Optical Storage
  2. Hard Disk and Solid State Drives
  3. Flash Memory
  4. Cloud Services
  5. Magnetic Tape

Optical Storage

Just a few years ago, CDs and DVDs were one of the most popular methods for storing large amounts of data – particularly amongst home users. This was a consequence of the relatively high prices of HDDs and particularly SSDs, as well as their limited capacity. In comparison, optical discs were competitive both in terms of price and the capacity they offered. Manufacturers declared relatively long lifespans, although these claims were quickly verified in practice. Depending on the manufacturer, a disc should serve from anywhere from 25 to 200 years, but that claim depends on so many factors.  You should be prepared that the disc may become unreadable at any time – and rather sooner than later.

Our own behaviour is the main reason for shortening the lifespan of a disc.  Keeping them under wrong conditions, scratching, greasing (all of us have left our full sets of fingerprints on CDs) are common issues. In addition, lifespan can also be reduced from the methods used by manufactures to cut costs. Low-quality materials used to produce and protect the disc reduce the layer thickness, thus accelerating oxidation of the reflective layer.

All that aside, the hardware we use to read those discs may also turn out to be a problem.  New computers often don’t have a disc drive, and even if they do, not all formats are supported (CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+/–R DL).  Each of these formats indicates a separate technology and an individual method of data reading, so it may turn out that soon you won’t be able to get hold of an appropriate reader for your disc.

Hard Disk and Solid State Drives

The progress in HDD and SSD technologies has led to a significant reduction in prices of such storage devices, while at the same time increasing their capacity, which has resulted in optical discs no longer being a cost-effective storage medium. If you can buy a 1TB-2TB drive for under $100, what’s the advantage of using optical discs?  Both classic HDDs and SSDs, as well as their hybrids (SSHDs) can be used to set up array systems, removing virtually all limits to their data storage and archiving capabilities. If you store larger amounts of data and want to access them online, you can consider purchasing a personal cloud storage device.  Of course, the more you expand your infrastructure, the greater costs will be involved – hardware purchases, electricity, etc.

Sadly, hard disks cannot guarantee data security either. In the case of magnetic records on HDDs, the phenomenon of magnetic field breakdown occurs. This may not be a very rapid process – about 1% per year, but it may be dangerous to your data in the long run. SSDs do not guarantee complete safety and reliability either – temperature ranges at which the device operates are particularly important here. Raising the temperature by 40oF can, under specific circumstances, reduce the guaranteed data storage time by half.  Large fluctuations of temperature can also be deadly to a disk and the data contained on it.  It must be noted that every disk has a specific, limited lifespan, which means that there is no disk that can work forever. Appropriate infrastructure can of course maintain operational status and save your data – even if one (or more) disks fail.

Flash Memory

We can safely say that this type of memory has permeated our daily lives and is here to stay. SD cards and USB flash drives allow us to conveniently store and move large amounts of data. The primary drawback of this technology is the limited number of recording and erasing cycles, which leads to irreversible damage to the utilised cells once the erasing cycle has been exceeded.

Another hazard is related to the greatest advantage of flash memory carriers – their size and convenience makes them both easy to carry and to lose. A tiny SD card just loves to get lost and fall into cracks where you can’t reach it. Sometimes it also becomes a tasty morsel (literally) for small children or pets, who exhibit a penchant for biting such items. On the other hand, USB drives often fall victim to mechanical damage – mostly resulting from clumsy use when removing them from USB ports, but also from accidental hitting, kicking or crushing.

Cloud Services

Using cloud service providers who guarantee customised storage space for your needs is indeed convenient. Most popular providers grant you access to a free basic service – even up to 500GB of storage at your disposal. Your data is kept safe this way – copies are placed in locations scattered around the world, minimising a data loss event.

However, if you need to manage larger amounts of data, the price of such a service may quickly exceed the costs of your own infrastructure – for example, the annual price of 10TB in the popular Google Drive Service is $1200.  Moreover, storing data in a cloud can be seen as more risky – when you upload your data, you lose control over it and increase the risk of an information leak. Consequently, this technology is not recommended for storing sensitive or confidential data.

Good ol’ Tape

It’s clear that the larger the data pool you need to store, the greater the costs involved. It’s a huge problem which mainly applies to companies; it can severely limit their development – a rapid rise of the amount of stored and administrated data leads to a massive increase in infrastructure maintenance costs. Finding a solution that guarantees the best possible price to capacity and efficiency ratio is therefore a serious challenge. In this context, magnetic tapes are now living a second youth. This solution is proven and stable – for decades it has been used for data storage and is considered safe and extremely reliable.

In the times of pressing for better hardware parameters, particularly speed, tapes were predicted to vanish quickly. Nothing could be further from the truth – as it turns out, two qualities of this solution may be crucial to its future fate – huge capacity (the latest prototypes can store up to 220TB on a single tape!) coupled with energy efficiency. A tape uses 200 times less power than a hard disk – a perfect solution for storing and archiving vast amounts of data.

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