Data storage lifespans: How long will media really last?

floppy data storage
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Media preservation is the method by which we record, store, and preserve media over time. Stored media includes everything from written words to audio to photos to computer instructions to documents, software, and more. The various types of media are stored on everything from books to a hard drive all the way to video game cartridges. We’ve discussed the history of these various methods of data storage in the history of data storage and backup, but what we didn’t talk about is the lifespan of these different data storage methods.

The sad truth about data storage is that no medium for data storage will last forever, and most of them are replaced by a new storage method before long. But just how long will your favorite storage method last? How long do you have before you need to copy the information over to a new form?

Before we get to that, remember that there are always exceptions to the general rules. Just because a manufacturer claims a media device will last a certain amount of time doesn’t mean it will, it just means it can. Whether it’s under warranty or past, all bets are off and any of these storage methods can fail for any number of reasons. Lifespan depends on everything from environmental factors to usage rates to component quality and manufacturing. Thus, the figures here are very general guidelines. The only true way to protect data is to have multiple copies of everything, and the best way to do that is to invest in a good backup solution.

Magnetic tape

Magnetic tape can either lose data by losing its magnetic charge (any magnetically charged storage medium will eventually lose its magnetic charge and subsequently its data), or when the layers of the tape start to separate. According to a handful of sources (ehow, Wikipedia, and Searchdatabackup.com), manufacturers claim that tape can last up to thirty years, which can make it a useful medium for archiving. The problem with that number is that magnetic tapes will only last that long under absolutely optimum environmental conditions, meaning they need to be kept in a place where both humidity and temperatures are stable. A more realistic lifespan for magnetic tape is about ten to twenty years, although they are more susceptible to wear and tear if used frequently.

Cassette tape

Since cassette tapes and data tapes are very similar, the lifespan of cassette tapes is similar to that of magnetic tapes. Some have been known to wear out quickly due to excessive use, while others last upwards of thirty years (I’m sure some of my sister’s Michael Jackson tapes from the ‘80s still work). Lifespan really depends on the variety of factors we’ve mentioned. A safe bet is that a cassette tape lasts between ten and twenty years.

Nintendo Entertainment System video game cartridge

Older NES games didn’t have memory to save your game progress. Instead, you would earn passcodes to skip to various levels as you progressed. Eventually, though, video game cartridges were given small batteries that powered the memory that saved your progress in the game. Anybody who still owns an NES system with some memory-capable cartridges will probably run into trouble saving games as the cartridges get older. Since the memory relies on batteries, and since the batteries only last about ten years, a lot of game progress can be lost due to these failing batteries. The same is true of Super Nintendo and Gameboy cartridges—batteries last somewhere around ten years, but can often be replaced for more years of enjoyment.

Floppy disk

This one is really tricky. Based on my research (too many sources to record here), floppy disks were never super reliable, and some didn’t even work quite properly right out of the package. I’ve seen numbers saying the lifespan of floppy disks is three to five years, but I’ve also seen numbers that claim they can last ten to twenty years or even indefinitely.

Of course, since floppy disks utilize magnetic storage (not unlike tape), it’s safe to say that eventually the magnetism will wear out around the same time a tape’s would (ten to twenty years), and that’s if the cheap, flimsy plastic casing on the disk survives that long. It seems that some floppy disks have lasted for a considerable amount of time, though the storage method was largely replaced by compact disks and hard drives before the degradation of the magnetic field was much of an issue.

CD and DVD

According to the US National Archives, CDs and DVDs have very similar lifespans. Generally, unrecorded (blank) CDs and DVDs have a shelf-life of five to ten years. The experiential life expectancy of recorded CDs and DVDs is between two and five years, though based on manufacturer claims, ten to twenty five years, or even longer, isn’t unprecedented. In any case, using very conservative numbers will reduce the risk of losing data.

These numbers also depend on environmental factors and how often the disc is used. Any optical media is extremely susceptible to damage because there is little protection on the readable surface—just think about how many CDs of yours have been scratched through regular use, it happens to all of us.

Blu-Ray

Verbatim writeable Blu-ray disks come with a lifetime warranty, though I couldn’t find any reliable info on how long they supposedly retain data (or how long other brands of Blu-ray discs last). Under prime environmental conditions, they supposedly last quite a bit longer than CDs and DVDs because the method for recording data results in more durable storage, but even though they likely last quite a bit longer, they’re still optical media, which means they’re susceptible to scratching, high temperatures, and sunlight, just as the others.

M-Disc

The M-Disc is an optical media storage disc that is a supposedly “permanent storage solution” and claims to be able to last up to 1,000 years, even in the face of environmental damage caused by scratching and high temperatures. While the M-Disc is a new format, it can be used with any standard DVD drive to read information, but since the data is engraved into advanced metals, a special M-Disc-ready drive is required to write it. Plus, since this technology is so new, the 1,000 year lifespan is only theoretical so only time will tell how long these advanced discs will really last, though they do have some fairly impressive research backing their theories.

Hard disk drives

Most hard disk drives (HDD) last between three and five years before some component fails. That doesn’t always mean the drive is irrecoverably busted, but three to five years is still about how long they last, whether you’re talking about an internal drive for a server or desktop, or an external hard disk drive. With all of the moving parts inside, something will eventually stop working, but as with any media storing important data, it’s important to use quality hardware.

Flash storage

Flash storage comes in three different common storage media: Flash drives, SD cards, and solid state drives (SSDs). eHow says flash drives can last up to ten years, but as mentioned on NYTimes.com, flash memory doesn’t usually degrade because of its age, but rather because of the number of write cycles, which means the more you delete and write new information, the more quickly the memory in the device will start to degrade. Since all these devices are similar in that they all use flash memory, they’ll all degrade in a similar fashion. However, one thing is certain: better hardware will pay off. Given the variety of manufacturers, lifespan might differ quite a bit from one device to another, but flash memory devices rated for more write cycles will usually last longer. When it comes to flash drives and SD cards, you’ll likely lose them or ruin them in the washing machine before anything else happens.

Conclusion

When it comes to hardware, skimping to save money won’t pay off in the long run, especially if you lose precious data, which can cost you far more than you would’ve saved. Select the right hardware, and make sure any data is backed up somewhere else to be sure it lasts, you never know when any type of media might fail.

To review, here are the lifespans of each of the above data storage methods:

Magnetic data and cassette tapes: 10-20 years
Nintendo Cartridge: up to 10 years
Floppy Disk: 10-20 years
CDs and DVDs: 5-10 unrecorded 2-5 recorded
Blu-Ray: Not certain, probably over 2-5 recorded
M-Disc: 1,000 years (theoretically)
Hard Disk: 3-5 years
Flash Storage: Depends on write cycles, 5-10 years or more

Curious about the future of data storage? Take a look at this piece on a new up-and-coming optical disc.

Casey Morgan

Casey Morgan

Casey Morgan is the marketing content specialist at StorageCraft. U of U graduate and lover of words, his experience lies in construction and writing, but his approach to both is the same: start with a firm foundation, build a quality structure, and then throw in some style. If he’s not arguing about comma usage or reading, you'll likely find him and his Labrador hiking, biking, or playing outdoors -- he's even known to strum a few chords by the campfire.

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