No Data Storage Device Lasts Forever (or Very Long, for That Matter)
Bear with me while I get a little nerdy here, but I recently finished the sci-fi novel series Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Liu Cixin. It’s also known as the Three-Body Problem series, and while I don’t want to spoil anything, the series is full of very interesting problems that future humans run into as they try to ensure their longevity in an apparently dangerous universe. One of these problems that got my IT brain spinning was archiving data that could potentially outlive humankind itself. It highlights just how fragile and temporary our modern data storage is, and it’s worth examining, because more and more of our things are built upon modern data storage, whether we realize it or not.
Again, I don’t want to spoil this book series, but to summarize the situation, humankind is building a Museum of Humanity. The goal is to preserve as much information and artifacts about our history and collective cultures in a format that would last forever, or as close to forever as possible. As it turns out, this was a huge challenge, even though it takes place three hundred years from now.
No Data is Forever
Let’s look at the most simple, rudimentary way we can store information—a pen and paper. I can write down an idea on a sheet of paper, fold it up, and stick it in a safe. If I leave that safe in a house, and let’s assume long after I pass on, nobody touches the safe or the house. After a few dozen years, the house will start to fall apart. Depending on the quality of the safe, it might keep that piece of paper protected for a few centuries. Eventually though, the safe will give way to the elements. Moisture and oxidation will wear it away, and as soon as those elements reach the paper, that information is gone.
Even if you were to chisel your thoughts into stone or metal, eventually erosion and oxidation will degrade your efforts until they are forgotten to time. It’s kind of dark and depressing, but also beautiful, depending on how you think of it. If humans were to disappear tomorrow, 10 million years from now there would be virtually no sign of us on the planet except trace plastics and the occasional preserved piece of rebar buried under millennia of sedimentary rock.
Granted, most businesses aren’t worried about the next several centuries, but modern data storage technologies are not nearly as long-lasting physical mediums.
Modern Data Storage Technologies are Very Temporary
As of right now, there are four digital mediums most businesses can use to store data:
- Mechanical Hard Disk Drives
- Solid State Drives
- Magnetic Tape Media
- The Cloud
Mechanical Hard Disk Drives
Also known as HDDs or, informally, spinning rust drives, these are the hard drives of yesteryear that came installed in nearly every computer and laptop for over 30 years. They still have a place in IT today; while they might not be as fast, durable, or energy efficient as modern-day SSDs (Solid State Drives), they excel at extremely high capacity storage and are great in situations where you need to constantly be reading and writing information, such as video surveillance, media rendering, and busy centralized file servers.
That being said, the mechanical aspect of these drives lead to their downfall. They work by spinning layers upon layers of magnetic platters. They are extremely sensitive to shock, and mechanical parts can fail over time. A simple malfunction could cost the drive to become unreadable, and restoring the information can be impossible or extremely expensive. They can potentially survive long periods of time (years and even decades) on a shelf if kept safe, but that is assuming you don’t use them and keep them in a very controlled environment.
Solid State Drives
Known as SSDs, and sometimes referred to as flash memory, these are the modern drives that come installed in most mid-range PCs and almost all laptops today. These drives are extremely fast compared to their mechanical counterparts, and much more rugged when it comes to their physical build, as they don’t require any moving parts. Instead, these drives exploit a subtle quantum mechanical phenomenon called “electron tunneling” that uses small charges of electricity to store the data. This leads to extremely energy-efficient data storage, but as of right now, the electricity in these drives gradually tunnels out over time, which leads to the data being lost.
If you leave an SSD on a shelf, within a couple years the internal error correction components on the drive will need to work very hard to recover the lost data. Within a decade or two, enough electron loss could lead to the entire drive being blank. It more or less evaporates over time.
These drives are great for the average laptop or desktop, but they aren’t really designed for long-term storage.
Magnetic Tape Media
Long-forgotten, but still used in some cases today, magnetic tape media is exactly what it sounds like. If you are old enough to remember listening to music on tape cassettes and renting VHS videos from Blockbuster, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
As it turns out, magnetic tape has a pretty good shelf life if kept in a controlled environment. It’s a long, arduous process to record and read data on magnetic tapes; it makes for a very impractical data backup solution. That being said, you could keep a magnetic tape backup of all of your data on a shelf for decades—possibly even a century, and as long as you still had a device that could read it, and a device that could accept, interpret, and process the data, there’s a chance you could restore from it.
Deep down, the cloud isn’t all that special when it comes to how your data is stored. The cloud is, more or less, just someone else’s computer. All of your Office 365 files stored in Sharepoint or OneDrive, all of your Google Docs and Gmail, all of your Facebook posts and Tweets—it’s all just information on someone else’s computer.
Granted, those computers are in massive arrays kept secure in controlled-environment facilities that are managed by IT professionals, and hopefully all your data is redundant and stored across multiple physical locations…
But it’s still someone else’s computer. They are using essentially the same technology you have access to—either SSDs or HDDs or a combination of both.
It’s that redundancy that is key though—you are much less likely to lose data if it’s stored in multiple locations and there are systems in place to ensure that it is kept safe and secure. This comes with a huge price that you need to pay for indefinitely to keep the data stored, and you are relying on a third-party to maintain their business model and continue to provide the service for as long as you want that data stored.
It’s not likely, but Google could, at any time, decide to throw in the towel and sell off their business and go away. The same with Microsoft, GoDaddy, Amazon AWS, or anyone else. On a similar token, a massive data breach could affect every single Office 365 user. Again, these scenarios aren’t likely, and these companies are reliant on protecting your information, but it does take a little bit of the control out of your hands. It shouldn’t be enough to make business owners eschew cloud services, but there should always be that little voice in your head that asks “how do I maintain a copy of all my data, just in case?”
The Unforeseen Future of Data Storage
Here’s the biggest issue that we haven’t really reached yet; most modern devices use some sort of flash or SSD-based storage. Our smartphones, our tablets, our televisions, our game consoles, our cars, our smart appliances, our electric accordions—if it has some sort of computer inside of it beyond the most rudimentary motherboard, it is likely using this temporary storage medium.
If you keep a modern Tesla in your garage for a decade, will it stop working because the flash storage in the computer system evaporates? Will baby photos and video stored on an external hard drive last until that child grows up and has grandchildren of their own?
Will businesses need to start taking long-term storage and data archival into account?
Technology makes it difficult to look at the bigger picture, because of how fast everything changes. That being said, it’s important to prepare for the future, both the next several years and the next several decades, and understand that our modern technology does tend to have a shelf life.
We can help your business make smart technology-related decisions. Let’s discuss your IT roadmap and how we can ensure that your business is as future-proof as possible. Give us a call at (978) 482-2020 to talk to one of our IT experts today.