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Backups and Storage Media, Which Backup Storage Media to Use?

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Backups and Storage Media

There have been several traditional and popular storage options for backing up your data. Not long ago there were only two choices available, magnetic tape and floppy disk. That was it. Thankfully, technology has moved on and the situation is a little better today.

Here I present my opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of each. Regardless of the backup repository model used, the backup data has to be stored on some data storage medium somewhere, so which backup storage media should you use?

Backups and Storage Media Contents


Archives and Backups Clarification

First a little clarification. Due to the nature of the technology used, backups and backup systems are frequently confused with archives and fault-tolerant systems.

  • Archives are the primary copy of data, usually put away for future use.
  • Backups are a secondary copy of data, kept on hand to replace the original item.
  • Fault-tolerant systems assure a fault will not cause a data loss event whilst backup systems assume a fault will cause a data loss event.

Backup to Hard Disk

Backup to internal hard drive

Backup to internal hard drive

Backup to external hard drive

Backup to external hard drive

The storage capacity/price ratio of hard disks has been rapidly improving for many years making it very competitive with magnetic tape as a bulk storage medium. The main advantages of hard disk storage are low access times, availability, high capacity and ease of use.

External hard disks can be connected via local interfaces such as SCSI, USB, FireWire, or eSATA, or via longer distance technologies like the Internet, Ethernet, iSCSI, or Fibre Channel.

Being relatively complex, mechanical devices, the main disadvantages of hard disk backups are that they are easily damaged, especially while being transported (e.g., for off-site backups), and that their stability over periods of many years is a relative unknown.

The methods for backup of data to hard disk ranges from completely manual to fully automated scheduling.

Advantages of Backup to Hard Disk

  • Cost. External hard drives are relatively inexpensive and their price continues to drop.
  • Fully automated backup available.
  • Good security. Data that never leaves your possession is relatively safe.
  • Easy, simple, quick access in the event of a disaster.

Disadvantages of Backup to Hard Disk

  • Management, storing, organizing and locking up physical items is required.
  • Physical media are susceptible to damage by mishandling and accidents.
  • Stability and usability over ten or more years a relative unknown quantity.

Optical Storage

optical storage

Recordable optical storage, CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs

Recordable optical storage, CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs are commonly used with personal computers for backup purposes as they are easy to use and generally have low media unit costs. However, the capacities and speeds of these and other optical discs are typically an order of magnitude lower than hard disk or tape.

The Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) publish longevity estimates for recordable optical media using manufacturers data (ISO 18927:2002, Imaging materials). Historically, manufacturers have claimed life-spans ranging from 50 to 200 years for CD-R discs and 20 to 100 years for CD-RW. Be aware, however, that disc producers, manufacturing methods and materials change over time as do applications and cost imperatives.

  • When assessing disc quality keep in mind the huge number of variables involved. These include such things as disc types, manufacturers, recording software and hardware.

While convenient and simple to perform, the use of optical storage discs requires manual intervention (inserting another backup disc as required) and can consume considerable time.

Advantages of Optical Storage Backups

  • Read only optical disk formats make them useful for archival purposes since the data cannot be changed.
  • Costs of optical media and systems are inexpensive.
  • Good security. Data that never leaves your possession is relatively safe.
  • Quick, simple process. Burning data discs can be done using the utilities included with most computer systems.

Disadvantages of Optical Storage Backups

  • Management Storing, organizing and locking up physical items is required.
  • Durability Physical media are susceptible to damage by mishandling and accidents.
  • The backup cannot be automated and requires human intervention.
  • The main disadvantage of recordable optical storage discs is their relative dependence on current technologies. Will we still be using this medium in ten years time? Will the hardware to read this storage medium still be available?
  • Their stability over periods of many years is still a relative unknown.

Magnetic Tape

Magnetic Tape

Typical high capacity Magnetic Tape

IBM 3410 Magnetic Tape Subsystem

IBM 3410 Magnetic Tape Subsystem

You might think magnetic tape would have died a slow death, yet because of its stability and massive storage capabilities, magnetic tape is still used by corporations to backup terabytes of data every day.

Magnetic tape has long been the most commonly used medium for bulk data storage, backup, archiving, and data interchange. Magnetic tape has typically had an order of magnitude better capacity/price ratio when compared to hard disk, but recently the ratios for tape and hard disk have become a lot closer, especially with the advent of high capacity external drives.

Magnetic tape is still dominant in certain markets like mainframes. Tape is a sequential access medium, so even though random access times may be poor, the rate of sequential writing and reading of data can actually be very fast, some are even faster than hard disks. A principal advantage of tape is that it has been used for this purpose for decades and its characteristics are well understood.

Floppy and Zip Disks – Obsolete!


Floppy and Zip Disks – Obsolete!

During the 1980s and 1990s personal computer users associated backing up mostly with copying to floppy or Zip disks. However, the data capacity of these media failed to catch up with growing demands, rendering them unpopular and obsolete.

Solid State Storage – Flash Drives

Solid State Storage

Solid State Storage USB Flash Drive 16GB

Solid State Drive 480GB

Solid State Drive 480GB

As a solid state drive does not contain any movable parts unlike its magnetic drive counterpart it is far more reliable. They can also outperform hard drives with huge throughputs in the order of 500Mbit/s to 6Gbit/s.

Although solid state storage devices are currently relatively expensive compared with hard drives of similar capacity their compact size, weight and speed make them highly desirable. Solid state storage drives suitable for backups are now available with storage capacities in the order of 500GB to 2TBs.

Advantages of Solid State Storage Backups

  • Transfer speeds are excellent.
  • Robust due to no moving parts.
  • Easily transported and stored.
  • Easy to install.
  • Typical data retention periods of ten years or more. Not vulnerable to magnetic fields.

Disadvantages of Solid State Storage Backups

  • High speed, high capacity drives still very expensive.

Remote Backup Service

As broadband internet access becomes more widespread, remote backup services (the cloud) are gaining in popularity. Backing up via the internet to a remote location can protect against some worst-case scenarios such as fires, floods, or earthquakes which would destroy any backups in the immediate vicinity along with everything else.

The main advantages to remote backup services are:

  • Convenience. Files are automatically copied through the Internet.
  • Low upfront costs usually billed monthly or annually.
  • Safe offsite storage of data increases disaster recovery options.

The main drawbacks to remote backup services are:

  • Internet connections are usually slower than local data storage devices.
  • Upstream links are usually much slower than the downstream links. This tends to limit the use of such services to relatively small amounts of high value data.
  • Although confidentiality can be assured by encrypting the data before transmission to the backup service, users must trust a third party service provider to maintain the privacy and integrity of their data.
  • For long term archiving purposes, you must presume the service provider will still exist in ten or more years time!
  • This is a more complex way of doing traditional backups.

Backup Advice

  • The more important the data, the greater is the need for backing up the data.
  • A backup is only as good as its restore strategy. Test your restoration process.
  • Do not store the archive or backup near the original. Disasters such as fire, flood and theft are likely to damage all at the same time.
  • Automated backup and scheduling should preferred to prevent human error.
  • To save storage space consider incremental backups.
  • Occasionally manually verify your backup(s).
  • Archives and backups should be stored in standard formats.

Backup Solutions for Business

Backup media for business users must be versatile, inexpensive, fast, and most importantly, easy to use. Neither magnetic tape, floppy disks, CD-ROM or DVD-ROM come close to satisfying the diverse backup needs of today’s businesses and home computer owners.

Backups and Storage Media Conclusion

For those in need of a backup solution I would recommend True Image 2013 by Acronis. Acronis True Image protects your content, recovers your data in case of any disasters, and syncs it with all your devices or across computers. Safe, reliable, easy, it’s the ultimate in digital protection. This is the backup software I’ve been using for years. They also have a True Image 2013 Free trial here.

If you need a more advanced solution such as remote/cloud backup or related backup products then you might like to see my recommendations:

Well, I hope you found something useful and enjoyed this article, Backups and Storage Media. Don’t forget to let me have your thoughts in the comment box below. See you soon.

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  One Response to “Backups and Storage Media, Which Backup Storage Media to Use?”

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