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Have a backup plan for your backups

Watch what you eat, work out, get plenty of sleep. You may live longer, but not forever. The same goes for digital data. By all means, make backup copies of your precious photos and documents. Just don't count on those backups being permanent.

It was easier when we stored our baby photos and love letters in shoe boxes; paper lasts for centuries when properly stored. Today, we store our memories in ones and zeros -- the language of the digital age. And digital data is fragile. Hard drives crash; files stored in flash memory or burned onto DVDs can fade away, and today's files may be unreadable by tomorrow's computers.


"In a perfect world, I would chisel ones and zeros into a stone. It's the only way to keep them a long time," said Claus Trelby, director of technology for the entertainment services division of Boston data archiving company Iron Mountain Inc.

Hard drives are mechanical devices, full of motors and bearings. They inevitably break down, even if you switch them off. At home, I keep terabytes of old files on an unplugged, disconnected drive. I'd better watch out, said Trelby. That kind of drive must be turned on once in awhile, or the bearings will dry out and the spinning disk inside will seize up.

Many of the latest laptops have replaced hard drives with flash memory. But flash files also aren't forever. SanDisk, one of the leading flash memory makers, offers Memory Vault, a device that promises to safely store data for 100 years. A 16-gigabyte Memory Vault sells for about $25 on Amazon. But Trelby's a skeptic. "The medium has not been around long enough to truly gauge whether data rot exists for that data," he said.


Just the other day, I dug out some CDs I burned back in 2002, full of MP3 music files. Many of them proved unreadable. Standard burnable disks use a chemical dye that's activated by the burner's laser, and the dye eventually fades away, taking your files with it.

A company called M-Disc sells burnable DVD and Blu-Ray disks that claim a life expectancy of 1,000 years. Needless to say, we've got to take their word for it, but M-Disc certainly talks a good game. M-Disc uses minerals that are melted by the light beam to form a supposedly permanent impression on the disk. Only time will tell if M-Disks are as tough as the makers claim.

Perhaps you can buy a few and find out. They're significantly more expensive than standard blank disks. For instance, 25 M-Disk DVDs are available for $60 at Amazon --roughly the same amount you'd pay for 300 standard DVDs. In addition, you must have a DVD or Blu-Ray burner that's compatible with M-Disks. Some newer computers are good to go, but many machines are not. An external burner with M-Disk compatibility can be had for about $100.

Then again, nobody will be using DVDs in 20 years, much less 1,000. Many new computers don't even contain optical drives; they're headed the way of the floppy disk. Come to think of it, our flash drives and external hard drives will also become obsolete over time. In 20 or 30 years, your kids will buy new computers that won't let them plug in these old devices, much less read the data stored on them.


What to do? Consider backing up everything to the Internet cloud. Online warehouses like Dropbox, Carbonite, OneDrive and Google Drive constantly refresh their storage hardware, ensuring that bit rot never sets in. Of course, you must trust that these companies will protect your privacy, and that they won't one day go broke or suffer a massive service outage. For years, I've stashed my personal files at Carbonite, which charges $60 a year for unlimited data storage. So far, so good.

If you prefer to manage your own data archive, do what big corporations and government agencies do, and back up your backups. Buy yourself a new storage device, like a giant external hard drive, and make fresh copies of everything. The Library of Congress says everyone should do this every five years, and provides an excellent how-to guide at http://www.digitalpreservation.gov.

This workout won't do much for your own life expectancy, but your grandkids will be grateful.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.