Don’t Fear the Reaper (or the Floppy)

3.5-inch floppy disks typically hold 1.44MB of data
3.5-inch floppy disks typically hold 1.44MB of data

At some point in my class, students ask me how I store my images. My answer is basically always the same: thoroughly. I explain to them that the world of data storage is, unlike film and photographic prints, always in motion. 20 years ago the storage medium for computers was floppy disks. Ten years ago it was Zip© disks. Five years ago it was a mix of  CDs, DVDs, and USB storage. Today, as always, we are faced with trying to sort out which of these media has a future, and which new media will be a smart choice for the future.

My own preference has been to back up my files, be they photo files or other document, on multiple media. Typically my data both at my newspaper and at home gets stored as follows:

  • Two copies on archival-quality CD-Rs (Compact Disk, Recordable), in a full-sized jewel case with the spine labeled so I can find it when stacked with other disks. At work, I burn one each month, and at home I burn when I get to the limit a CD will hold, about 700MB. One key reason I still prefer CDs for my archiving is that once it is created, a CD-R can’t be accidentally erased. I make two copies and store them in two different locations, usually one at home and one at my office.
  • When I get enough CDs to fill a DVD, usually about six, I burn that group onto a DVD. A single-layer DVD will hold about 4.7GB. I don’t believe DVDs are as reliable an archival media as CDs, since DVDs were never designed with the error correction levels of CDs. However, I find that DVDs are fairly reliable, and having all that data on a single disk means spending less time repopulating my hard drive with archived images after a crash.
  • And yes, it is probably inevitable that all hard drives crash, but I keep an “Archive” volume at work and at home, since a big hard drive will allow me to access thousands of image and video files whenever I need them. At work, my computer system bus allows me to have an archival hard drive internally, and at home I have a large external drive. If you think hard drives, even solid-state ones, are just as reliable as CDs, ask yourself this: when was the last time a power surge or lightning strike trashed all the data on a CD?
  • Since I have an Apple computer, I also use a native program called “Time Machine,” which automatically backs up literally everything I do on my Mac every hour. It, too, requires an external hard drive, but if you look, you will find that hard drives are very affordable.
  • I don’t really like the idea of archiving on USB keys (also known as thumb drives), CF cards, SD cards, etc., for two reasons: 1) They can be erased with ease, and 2) They are so small that they are easily lost, and can also easily fall into the hands of strangers.
  • The article I read that inspired this entry suggested that “cloud storage,” which involves uploading your files to a commercial storage site, is a possible answer, but I don’t like that idea except as a second-tier backup, for one reason: that company could go out of business.

If you have data on old media like floppy disks or Zip© disks, all is not lost. It’s already too late for older floppy disks like 5.25-inch and older. While it will soon be too late to migrate other media to modern storage, you still have a chance to preserve that data; now is the time. Get a Zip© drive and a floppy drive on eBay and do it.

Single-layer DVD-R disks hold about 4.7GB of data, or the equivalent of about 3300 3.5-inch floppies
Single-layer DVD-R disks hold about 4.7GB of data, or the equivalent of about 3300 3.5-inch floppies