Data Storage

Data storage lifespans: How long will media really last?

July 27th, 2022

Digital media has been with us for a very long time. The first high-speed, entirely electronic memory was developed at Manchester University and tested in 1947. It used a cathode ray tube—much like an analog TV picture tube—to store bits as dots on the screen’s surface. Then, in 1951 UNIVAC introduced the first tape storage device for a commercial computer, offering relatively low cost, portability, and unlimited offline capacity. Magnetic disks took four more years to arrive on the scene with IBM’s RAMAC 305, the world’s first computer based on then-new hard disk drive technology. 

While we’ve made tremendous advances in data storage technology, tape and disks are still widely used, along with newer data storage formats like flash. Of course, these storage technologies have also been improved over time. While each may have its advantages, nothing lasts forever—including data storage devices. And new storage technology advances will continue in concert with computing advances—overcoming quantum information storage challenges is one example—so it’s more than likely we’ll still see significant changes in data storage in the future.

Back to today. You may have asked yourself how long your favorite storage method will last. Remember, just because a manufacturer claims a media device will last a long time doesn’t mean it will. It just means it can. Whether it’s under warranty or not, all bets are off, and any storage method can fail for several reasons.

Lifespan depends on everything from environmental factors to usage rates to component quality and manufacturing. The only sure way to protect data is to employ the 3-2-1-1 backup strategy and invest in a backup and disaster recovery solution that meets your requirements. Let’s look at the various media in use today and what you can expect regarding lifespan.

Magnetic Tape

Data loss in magnetic tape happens either because the media loses 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. Some manufacturers claim that tape can last up to thirty years, making it a suitable medium for archiving. The problem with that number is that magnetic tapes only last that long under absolutely optimum environmental conditions. That means you must store magnetic tapes where both humidity and temperatures are stable. A more realistic lifespan for magnetic tape is about ten to twenty years. And it’s important to note that tape is more susceptible to wear and tear if used frequently.

Cassette Tape

Since cassette and magnetic tapes are very similar, their lifespans are also about the same. Some have been known to wear out quickly due to excessive use. Others last over thirty years (pull out an old music cassette from the 80s and give it a shot—if you can still find a cassette player—and listen for yourself). Lifespan depends on the same factors we’ve mentioned. A safe bet is that a cassette tape lasts between ten and twenty years.

Floppy Disk

Predicting a floppy disk’s lifespan is tricky. Floppy disks were never very reliable, and some didn’t even work correctly right out of the package. Some manufacturers claimed the lifespan of floppy disks was three to five years, while others said they could last ten to twenty years. 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 would (ten to twenty years). That's if the cheap, flimsy casing on the disk survives that long. It seems that some floppy disks have lasted for a considerable time. However, this storage method was largely replaced by other technologies before the degradation of the magnetic field became much of an issue.

CD and DVD

CDs and DVDs have very similar lifespans. Generally, unrecorded (blank) CDs and DVDs have a shelf-life of five to ten years. The actual 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 you use the disc. Any optical media is highly susceptible to damage because there is little protection on the readable surface—all it takes is a scratch on the surface, and some data can be lost.

Blu-Ray

Writeable Blu-ray disks come with a lifetime warranty, though we couldn’t find any reliable info on how long they are expected to retain data. Under ideal 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.

M-Disc

The M-Disc is an optical archival media storage media that the company says can “preserve photos, videos, music, and documents for 1,000 years or more.” That’s quite a claim and is clearly only theoretical. The M-Disc can be used with any standard DVD drive to read information, but since the data is engraved into advanced metals, an M-Disc-ready drive is required to write it.

Hard Disk Drives

Most hard disk drives (HDD) last three to five years before some component fails. That doesn’t always mean the drive is irrecoverably broken. But three to five years is still about how long they last, whether you’re talking about an internal drive for a server, desktop, or an external HDD. With all of the moving parts inside, something will eventually stop working. As with any media storing essential data, it just makes sense to invest in high-quality drives. Interestingly, while HDDs have been around a long time, they are still expected to remain the dominant storage media in 2022.

Flash Storage

These days, flash is used in enterprise data center servers, storage, and networking technologies. It’s also ubiquitous in consumer devices like USB flash drives, SD cards, cell phones, digital cameras, and more. All these uses rely on solid-state flash memory for persistent data storage. At the physical cell level, flash storage cells retain data by trapping and keeping electrons in a floating gate. Each cycle of inbound electrons (programming) and outbound electrons (erasing) wears out the tunnel oxide, weakening the cell structure over time. At some point, the cell can’t reliably hold the charge.

TechTarget says most enterprise-grade solid state drives (SSDs), which typically rely on NAND flash memory, are designed to last between three and five years, with cell density playing a significant role in endurance rates. SanDisk—one of the early innovators in flash memory—offers product warrantees that range from a single year to a lifetime.

The reality is that your flash storage will last somewhere between these periods. Aviation company Curtiss Wright did extensive testing on the lifespan and reliability of flash, noting in a white paper on the subject, “There are many factors that impact the reliability of flash devices. Understanding the practical use case of your hardware product, the operating system and applications it will run, and the platform on which it will be deployed is critical to applying real-world conditions to endurance calculations.” 

Conclusion

Regardless of the storage media you use in your infrastructure, ensuring your data is protected, backed up, and recoverable is always your priority. To learn how Arcserve products can help you do just that, choose an expert Arcserve technology partner. To learn more about our products, contact us.

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