How Long Will Your Files Last?

One of the continuing concerns for digital photographers is the question of how long digital files will last.  Not just image files of course…anything saved to some sort of memory device in digital form.  Unfortunately, the quick answer is that nobody really knows.

An “archive” is a collection of records, documents, or other materials (often original and unique) kept in an environment where they will last as long as possible.   While nothing physical is truly permanent, (if you question that premise, have a read of Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us”), no medium currently available for electronic data storage has yet been proven to last forever, though each has its own characteristics and susceptibilities and a few are expected to do much better than others.  Realize too, there’s a hierarchy of threats including limitations of the materials themselves (ferric-oxide on tape, magnetic platters inside a hard drive, plastic CD/DVD discs, dyes used to record CD/DVDs, etc.), as well as currency of programs and devices needed to interpret stored electronic data.  Common environmental hazards include heat, humidity, static electricity, acidity, and dirt, some of which when taken to extremes (like fire or flood) can be more immediately destructive than others.

One of the best discussions of the care and protection of your photographic digital assets is Peter Krogh’s “The DAM Book, Second Edition.”  In it he stresses the limitations of various media and lays out a thoughtful, thorough plan for managing and future-proofing your assets.  Understand this is a moving target—one can’t simply set it up and forget it— and new options continue to arrive that address one or more threats to your files.

One recent example is M-DISC, by Millenniata.  While optical discs (CD-R, DVD-R, DVD+R) have been in wide use for many years, how well they protect files varies widely.  Several manufacturers have increased their product’s potential longevity by using special metals (especially gold) and coatings.  The M-DISC uses different, harder materials and what amounts to an engraving process to achieve what they claim to be a much longer life.  There is a downside; you have to use a special disc drive to burn M-DISCs (though they can be played back in most standard DVD drives), and they are somewhat expensive (about $3 each).  In addition, they are still limited in capacity to approximately 4.7 GB of data.  Is this a good solution?  Maybe.  Shutterbug’s David Brooks has given it a pretty strong endorsement in his test report in the December issue of the magazine, and he has a pretty good track record on stuff like this.  So for protecting your “family jewels” (as Arthur Morris refers to the best of the best of your images), making a commitment to M-DISC is probably worthwhile.

Another set of devices designed to address particular hazards are from ioSafe.  These are hard drives in special cases that are advertised to withstand both fire (1550 degrees F for a half hour) and flood/submersion (up to 10 feet for 72 hours).  In addition, they come with a one year data recovery service that claims it will cover any loss for any reason (service period can be extended to as much as 5 years).   Desktop and portable versions—even a “rugged portable SSD” model—are available.  [If you’d truly like to make a fashion statement, they can set you up with a 600 GB SSD with titanium enclosure for $3,000.  Pretty steep for a field backup device, but I’ll bet it would sure look nice and keep your data safe too.]

Last but not least, SanDisk offers their Memory Vault.  Essentially a USB thumb drive in a hardened case, it’s available in 8 GB or 16 GB sizes…maybe not the largest capacity device of the lot, but one could still store at least a few of your most important images in one of these.

Whatever route you take, it’s worth reminding oneself now and then how important a good backup plan is.  You never know how or when something bad might happen, and losing all your precious digital image files is a life-altering experience.  Try not to let it happen to you.

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