Archiving Digital Imagery for the Long Haul—Part Three of Four

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Storage Media

Your choice of storage media is an equally important part of the archiving-process equation, and here too there are choices to be made. Among the options currently available are CDs/DVDs, portable hard drives, larger-capacity flash drives, RAID systems, and lastly, your computer’s hard drive, which should be viewed as a short-term solution, at best.  

Regardless of your choice of storage media, always make at least two copies (and preferably three copies) and store them in remote locations, i.e. a bank vault, a relative’s or friend’s home, your office, etc, to better ensure you don’t lose all of your work in the event of a fire, flood, or other form of natural or man-made disaster.

CDs/DVDs

CDs and DVDs are an economical solution for storing image files. The problem with CDs and DVDs has to do with long-term stability, which despite manufacturer’s claims of 50- to 70-year lifespans can be as short as two to three years, under less-than-ideal storage environs and a number of other variables. If you burn your images onto premium, name-brand media, CDs and DVDs can be convenient, cost-effective storage vehicles for both short and long-term archiving.

When considering CDs/DVDs, look for gold or other premium coatings. A simple test is to hold a CD/DVD up to a strong light source and place your hand behind it. If you can see the form of your hand through the CD/DVD, you don’t want it. The better CDs/DVDs are near or totally opaque. You will also want to burn not one, but at least two copies of each and as mentioned earlier, store them in separate locations. CDs/DVDs should also be stored on their ends—not lying flat.

Avoid attaching paper-based labels to CDs/DVDs. Nor should you use “standard issue” pens and markers for labeling purposes, as the chemistry of the ink used in the pen can taint the lifespan of the CD/DVD. Instead, use a marker specifically made for labeling CDs/DVDs to identify the contents of each disc. And lastly, store all CDs/DVDs in a dark, cool, humidity-controlled area (i.e. not the basement, attic or garage) and by all means keep CDs/DVDs away from direct sunlight and devices that produce radiant heat.

Note: Rewritable CDs and DVDs are less stable than non-rewritable CDs and DVDs and should only be viewed as short-term backup needs.

External Hard Drives

External hard drives have come down enormously in price. Depending on the make, model and type of connectivity (USB 2.0, USB 3.0, FireWire, FireWire-800, etc.), at the time of this writing, you can purchase a terabyte or more of pocket-size storage for well under $100. The beauty of external drives is that they are extremely affordable, compact, rewritable, and they hold oodles of data. And because they can be readily updated, it’s a good idea to swap the drive you keep at home with its remotely located back-up drive every month or so, making sure to update the “home” drives before making the trade. By doing this on a regular basis you’re better guaranteed a minimal loss of data should something happen to your local back-up drive.

As with any device with moving parts, it’s extremely important to give it a spin on a regular basis to ensure it will work when—heaven forbid—your remote drive is the only survivor of whatever mishap neutered your local back-up system. When updating your drives as described in the previous paragraph, you also are exercising the drive, which is just one more argument for updating and swapping drives on a regular basis.

Note: With the exception of solid-state external drives, external hard drives contain moving parts, and as with any mechanical device containing moving parts they’re not always perfect out of the box. For this reason it’s a good idea to verify the readability of any data recorded to a new drive. Many techies and archivists recommend that new drives be fully loaded, checked for integrity (i.e. is everything there and readily accessible), and reformatted before being employed for archiving purposes. This adds a bit of time to the up-front part of the process, but you’re better off finding out about defective hardware sooner than later.

RAID

A natural candidate for archiving data is a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). A RAID is essentially a cluster of individual hard drives that can be programmed to mirror data between one or multiple drives according to any number of pre-defined criteria or RAID levels. Working in tandem, RAIDs are powerful data storage, backup and archiving devices. In addition to higher input/output (I/O) performance, one of the key selling points of a RAID system is that in the case of a drive failure—or multiple drive failures—RAIDs provide automatic data backup to partner drives in order to avoid costly data loss (aka fault tolerance).

Because data is being shared between multiple independent drives, RAIDs are conducive to regularly scheduled swaps between local drives and duplicate drives stored off premises, making RAIDs natural choices for remote archiving of data between any number of remote storage locations.

The “Cloud”: Storing Data Online

An increasingly popular data archiving alternative is online storage, which is collectively known as “the cloud.” The beauty of online storage is that theoretically, you can safely store an unlimited volume of data at minimal cost without having to jockey data to and from multiple pieces of hardware, not to mention make regular runs to wherever you park your remote copies and back-up drives. Depending on your circumstances and the volume of data you need to archive, the cloud can also make the difference between having to move to larger quarters or stay in that tight but still quite manageable rent-controlled apartment you’ve grown attached to over the years.

Some of the more popular online data storage systems include Mozy, Flickr, Amazon S3, MiMedia, Photoshelter, BackBlaze, Carbonite, SmugMug, Windows Live Mesh 2011, Crashplan and Jungle Disk. Costs vary anywhere from $5 to just under $150 per month, based on a terabyte of storage space.

The downside of the cloud is that just as real clouds come and go, so do business models, even the best of them. Keeping that in mind, if you decide to use online storage services, it would be prudent of you to store at least one copy of your most important work on physically accessible external hard drives, a RAID system or DVDs just in case.

Note: Accepted file formats vary from venue to venue. All accept JPEGs, but not all accept RAW or DNG.

And do keep in mind that all of the above will be ancient history a decade from now!

Consider Storing Your Old Computers in a Cool, Dry Location

Before you take a hammer to the hard drive and leave the carcass at the curb for drive-by scavengers and treasure hunters, consider packing the old wheezer away in a safe location because someday this machine might be the only thing standing between you and your older image files. In theory, there will always be a method to access your old image files, but assuming it starts up after x-number of years in cold storage, the computer (and original software) you used to create the images way back when might in fact be your most reliable vehicle for opening up ancient files a decade or two or three from now.

And if you do take the time to pack and store retired computers and hard drives, make sure you power them up at least once a year to better ensure they actually start up in the event you need to use them. (Someday you might thank me for this little nugget.)


Related Articles:

Archiving for the Long Haul, Part 1

Archiving for the Long Haul, Part 2

Archiving for the Long Haul, Part 4

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