Will Your Files Last a Thousand Years?

Category: Backup

Would you be surprised to learn that standard CD and DVD discs have an expected lifespan of just 3 to 5 years? If your precious memories are backed up on optical discs, you might want to go looking for a medium that will protect your documents and photos a bit longer. How about a solution that promises 1000 years? Read on...

Long-Term File Storage

The Acer Aspire V5-561P is a “run of the mill” $550, 15-inch ultra-slim notebook, according to Cnet’s review, except for one extraordinary feature: its DVD writer can store data on discs that will still be readable 1,000 years from now. However, Acer doesn’t deem this feature important enough to mention on the V5-561P’s product information pages. So should you get excited about it?

The developer of this long-lived data storage technology, Milleniata LLC, sure thinks so. On a Web site that’s long on gee-whiz and short on technical details, the virtues of M-DISC optical discs and read/write drives are extolled from every angle. Here is how M-DISC works:

Standard CD/DVD technology uses a laser beam to heat a layer of organic dye that is sandwiched between polycarbonate sheets. The heated point, which can be very tiny, first swells like a bubble and finally collapses into a pit in the dye layer. A pattern of pit/no-pit areas on the disc’s surface constitute binary code that can be read by the same laser that wrote it. That is, the pattern can be read as long as the laser-burnt pits last.
1000 year backup disc

It takes 3-5 years for the organic dye to degrade naturally; that is the maximum life expectancy of CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray discs that use dye technology. Milleniata claims to vastly exceed this life expectancy by replacing degradable organic dye with an immutable mineral compound that is melted by the writing laser beam.

It takes more power to melt “stone” than it does to boil dye, apparently. Not every optical drive contains a laser powerful enough to write M-DISC discs. Currently, only LG Electronics has a family of optical drives touted as M-ready. They don’t seem to be any more expensive than regular drives; a random pick, the internal LG model GH24NS90, goes for $40 at Best Buy.

Minerals, Vitamins, and Baked Lasagna

CDs last only three to five years? Surprise... you really shouldn't expect your hard drive to last much longer than that, either. See my article How Long Do Hard Drives Last? to learn more...

The mineral compound makes M-DISC discs longer-lived, but it does not make them indestructible as the many preposterous demonstrations conducted by Millienata suggest. I don’t care if an M-DISC baked in lasagna remains readable. How does it do after I drop it face down on a sidewalk and step on it?

M-DISC’s added value (the discs sell for about $2 each versus pennies for a regular optical disc) lies in its stability under archival conditions: a safe deposit box, or perhaps an attic or basement. Attics may get hot enough to degrade organic dye prematurely while minerals remain intact. But a disc made with either is still vulnerable to physical destruction if it’s carried from place to place routinely.

Still, for important personal or commercial digital artifacts such as family photos, tax returns, unpublished novels, etc., at least one M-DISC may be worth having. The largest Blu-ray M-DISC capacity is about 25 GB, so more than a handful shouldn’t be necessary for most consumers, unless you have extensive collections of photos, music or videos that you want to preserve for 1000 years. Businesses and other institutional users may need more M-DISCs.

There isn’t a lot of manufacturer enthusiasm for M-DISC; actually, there’s none to speak of. That leads me to suspect there isn’t a lot of consumer demand for optical media that lasts more than 3-5 years. After all, we live in an age of flash drives and cloud storage, and most people wish their selfies would disappear long before they do. Here's the irony: for most digital data generated by consumers, destruction is a more pressing problem than preservation is.

But if you're looking for a backup solution that avoids the problem of the relatively short lifespan of consumer-grade hard drives and CD/DVD discs, as well as the privacy concerns of cloud storage, a couple of M-DISCs and a fireproof safe bolted to a concrete floor might be the best you can do right now. I'll bet Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner have already gotten theirs.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Will Your Files Last a Thousand Years?"

(See all 25 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

19 May 2014

The questions and opinions posed by both John and Sam are very good. BUT.....while I'm not particularly concerned about what happens to my photo and video files so far into the future as 1,000 years.....I am concerned that my thousands of images...home movies....and videos of our family (both past and present) will be preserved for at least the next century. After that it will be up to our descendents to re-copy them to the latest mediums.
But, Bob, if disks are not yet available to the buying public, what good is it to purchase a new optical drive and install it in my desktop PC? In your research, was there ANY disk manufacturer making these "M" disks? We need to know.....or maybe I'd better not be so quick to throw away all those old home movies....slides....prints, etc.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I didn't say the discs were unavailable, you can buy them now from M-DISC.com.

Posted by:

Darcetha Manning
19 May 2014

John Whalley said the following:

Very interesting story on CD/DVD lifespans. It's the first time I've been made aware of the limitation and it certainly will change my thinking about long term storage.

What about other removable media, like memory sticks, flash drives, Sim cards, etc..? Excluding drive/reader obsolescence (e.g. like the "floppies" of old), what's the life span of these media types?

I also have the same question. However, I will check out getting some M-Discs, because I do have some information on CDs, that I need to last longer than 3-5 years.

Posted by:

Bob D
19 May 2014

When I worked on a DEC PDP-1 in the 60's, I lost patience with failing punched paper tapes. I got hold of some metallized Mylar tape. Betcha when people dig up that tape 5,000 years from now, they will marvel at the ingenuity of the computer programs on the tape.

Posted by:

19 May 2014

Some Cloud storage/backup services such as Crashplan let you seed things by sending them a physical hard disk if you don't want to wait on the initial backup. I believe Carbonite offers this as well.

My suspicion regarding low consumer interest is that I continue to run across so many individuals and small business who do NO backups at all that it's no surprise they aren't excited about media that will last more than a couple of years.

I would be concerned that without wide spread adoption that you'll not be able to buy M-Disk media for too long. Then the reader/writers will disappear, etc.

Even if you do not like the cloud approach you could use a now inexpensive 1-3 TB hard drive pair for mirrored backups and swap out one of the drives every six months so there was a copy on a "new one" and an "old one".

I think it's safe to say that long term backups of any data has to include switching technologies every few years to keep up with advances in the state of the art.

Posted by:

19 May 2014

Great 2000 Year Year old man reference!!

Now for some nectarines.

Posted by:

19 May 2014

Harold, most cloud storage companies will send you an external drive onto which you can back up your initial terabytes and then ship it to them. After that big dump it's incremental backups that are much smaller, generally.

Posted by:

Old Man
19 May 2014

This is the second article this month where I read about the short lifespan of standard CD/DVDs. It seems rather strange to me, since while typing this I'm listening to a standard commercial music CD made in 1998.

EDITOR'S NOTE: There are at least 2 CD reproduction techniques. Consumer-grade equipment uses dye sublimation, which is most vulnerable to decay. Some commercial CDs are made with a different process which involves physical stamping and a metallic coating. Those last longer, but are still subject to degradation after several years. A music CD will be more "forgiving" of a few missing or incorrect bits.

Posted by:

19 May 2014

Phew! You gave me a scare Bob!
The proverbial 'sky' is NOT falling in my neck of the woods just yet: I went in the garage and pulled out my old photo albums and was ready to shed tears based on this topic. I used to take photos with a CanonA1 using 35mm chemical film. Then, I used to send them directly to Kodak for processing to digital equivalents using PhotoCD format (*.pcd; which is NOT to be confused with lower quality "pictureCD" format of yesteryear). The Kodak PhotoCD "Master Disc" that would be returned in about 10 days would cost $1 per shot. These CDs used gold color dyes and were said to last much longer than the lower grade versions that (were?) are much more common/cheaper. Since 35mm film was a max of 36 exposures per roll (39/roll was squeezable), one could send back the same GOLD CD back to Kodak with two additional rolls to fill it up to the max.
Anyways, I pulled out a few of these Kodak PhotoCDs and lo-and-behold, my photos are still holding out after 20+ years. I really don’t need 980 more years, just another 20 more possibly! At that point, I will not really care anymore (or any less)! ;(
2 words of caution >> 1)Never expose CDRs to sunlight/heat/moisture and 2)The fragile side of the CD is the top side not the bottom!

Posted by:

19 May 2014

I have CDs I created more than 14 years ago. They're still readable. How did they come by the 3 to 5 years lifespan? Did they leave them out in the sun, recorded side up?

Posted by:

20 May 2014

How long will external HDD's last? Is this dependent upon SATA/IDE not being superseded with a new recording setup/software method invalidating all our HDD's?

Posted by:

20 May 2014

WOW ... A thousand years, they say ... My heavens, that would be about 33 1/3 generations, to save this information for. I really, don't think they would care to see any of it, either. LOL

But, all joking aside, to save valuable photos, documents, birth records copied and so on ... A long time of preservation would be happily acceptable. Off hand, the Genealogists would LOVE this, as well as many, many Photographers.

My oldest daughter does Genealogy and has traced my family, back to Robert the Bruce. Now, that's pretty far back, with lots of information. It really would be nice, for her, to utilize this technology. She always worry, that she will lose, all of her hard work. If, anyone has seen what a Genealogy Tree looks like, they know that it is extremely complex and involved, with lots of information and notations.

Believe me, this M-DISC technology would/could be a lifesaver, for her and other family Genealogy researchers. I definitely, will pass this information on to her. She will probably, pass it along, to all of her Genealogy friends, if, she seems to like the idea.

Once again, Bob ... Thanks for a great article. It's always nice, to read about something, fairly new and definitely, different. :)

Posted by:

20 May 2014

I would suggest reading http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/mar/03/research.elearning about electronic storage.
Someplace else I found (in Italian) http://www.attivissimo.net/int_conf/20061027-linuxday/20061027-linuxday-testo.odt where it states (somewhere in the middle) "the bit is eternal, but not so its supports and above all the devices necessary to consult them"
We can read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on stone (several thousand years old), but what about digital media support?

Posted by:

20 May 2014

Hi Bob, I come from the museum world and we reckon good quality CDs will least for 10 years after which we will transfer the data. (I've got music CDs that are at least 15 years old that still play too). Really good point about the hardware changing so fast. There are still quite a few tape players about and I would think CD players should be around for a few years yet.

Posted by:

20 May 2014

After having a flash drive that refused to operate after it was loaded with data the first time, I am loath to trust flash drives. What we store on CDs or DVDs today will not be able to be read in another thirty years or so, so keep hard copies of your special photos.
I've just had two photographs cleaned up via digital means - one photo is a hundred years old this year, while the other is 98 years old. They are of my great-uncles who died in WWI, and now the hundredth anniversary of the War is coming, I'm sure a lot of old photos will get pulled out and enlarged. Those photos will last another hundred years - a lot longer than any current storage medium.

Posted by:

Old Man
20 May 2014

I still question the people who originated the claim that CDs and/or DVDs have such short lifespans. I suspect the people who came out with the M-DISC format.
Here is a quote taken (copy/paste) from a disc made in 1994:
Compact Discs have a shelf life of thirty years if the following precautions are taken to prevent damage. Never leave a disc exposed to direct sunlight or severe temperature. Always hold the CD by the edges to avoid touching the surface area. Immediately replace the disc in its case after use. Should the disc become soiled by fingerprints, dust, or dirt, wipe it with a clean, soft, lint-free, dry cloth. Always wipe in a straight line from center to edge, and never use a solvent or abrasive cleaner on the disc.

Since reading about the revised lifespan of CD/DVDs, I checked some of my older homemade discs - music, photos, VCDs, text files, and programs. All of those I checked are at least 10 years old and did not show any signs of degradation. I also checked some "budget" DVDs made in 2000, and they played without error.
Like some of the other posters, I question the methods and motives of those who came out with the 3 - 5 year lifespan.

Posted by:

20 May 2014

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I see no evidence here. It looks like snake oIl promotion from m-disc. None of my digital darks have failed in 3-7 years.

Posted by:

20 May 2014

I think this is a very interesting concept and one that may be needed by many, particularly businesses and governments. While I doubt 1000 years is necessary, for a lot of reasons, 100 seems very reasonable.
However, I seriously question the premise that our current disks last only 3-5 years. I have disks I made in the very early 2000's and as far as i can tell they are still just as good as when created. And I imagine the technology of both drives and disks is far better now than it was in say, 2002. I am referring primarily to music, videos and pictures, but I don't see why it would matter what kind of data is stored. Frankly, this is the first time i've heard that written disks have some sort of "shelf life".

Posted by:

Tony Brearley
24 May 2014

I have been using DVD-RAM disks for long term storage - how to they compare to a regular DVD for longevity? - I read that they were good for at least several decades - assuming I don't step on them!

Posted by:

Greg C
16 Jun 2014

There were several dye formulas common in the past and different dyes had different life expectancies. Cheap quality discs, especially those written at high speeds, died very quickly indeed; often within months. The quality of the reader, and I suspect the burner also has a significant impact.
I have several of the GOLD KODAK discs, both used and unwritten, all remain good even though the blanks are nearing ten years old. Time will tell if using these old blanks reduces durability.

Later Kodak branded some "silver" discs. While these are of high quality, I do not believe their durability will approach that of the GOLD discs which were rated at 100 years.

Sadly, in the more recent past I have found some discs in Dollar type stores that seem to be the Kodaks of several years ago, but these are completely FAKE.

While no consumer expects his data to be relevant for 1,000 years, it would be a relief not to have to worry about pictures & children's memories becoming unreadable within s few years.

Posted by:

16 Jun 2014

(Bob, this is to YOU, but comments were inspired by your and contributor's apparent lack of current info on and curiosity about and interest in M-Disc technology. I don't care if any is published or not. I'm well aware it has run on way too long, but this is easier than farting out multiple shorties. DO write more about the technology though. I HOPE their pricing drops a LOT, as I suspect that would help consumer usage. That also applies to non M-Disc normal Blu-Ray DL, TL, and QL blanks, but that IS a different topic. I've never even seen a price on the 128GB QL blanks, but would love to have affordable 50GB DL and 100GB TL ones widely available. Thanks for all your good info!)

I suspect M-Discs are not well known because many retailers are not carrying them and not enough folks are asking for them yet.

MicroCenter certainly IS carrying the DVD version, but I have not seen the Blu-Ray version there yet. Unlike the DVD version that had to be written on LG drives and recently maybe a Sony DVD drive or two that all have M-DISC on the front loading door (though once written can be read by ANY DVD drive), the new Blu-Ray 25GB capacity blanks can be written by any Blu-Ray drive, and cost typically less than twice what the 4.7GB DVD blanks are.

You will find the Blu-Ray M-Disc blanks at about $5 each from M-Disc, but they are probably not trying to compete with retailers, so shop for better prices.

As for those that have dug out old discs and discovered that they can still be read, that is great, you treated them well! Apparently there were some military tests to find which brands of field writable optical DVD discs could withstand their 3 day simulated "combat environment" torture test, and M-Discs were the only surviving discs. I don't know what the tests included, but probably that is readily available info.

I use ~$0.40 cents each (frequent sale price $9.95 for a 25 disc pack) single layer (SL) 25GB WinData Blu-Ray blanks which, after WinRar's compression, will still hold well over a decade of my save-worthy emails in ~1000 IMAP folders and subfolders from my Communigate Pro email server's "CommuniGate Files" directory which also includes full configuration information and is all that is needed to fire up a replacement server starting with a freshly downloaded copy of the CGP s/w running on any of over 30 OSes. Those plain Blu-Ray backups I still do very frequently, but now with the M-Disc Blu-Ray option being affordable enough I periodically do an additional M-Disc copy and store that far away.

I NEVER any longer use DL DVDs which are only 8.5GB and cost almost as much as SL Blu-Ray blanks and take a LOT longer to write for backup. I'd only use them for passing a legally copyable DL size video (maybe MOV or MP4) to a friend that can't read Blu-Rays as a data (not video) disc.

If you have pictures of ancestors and family events, or anything else grandchildren and their grandchildren might wish to add to and pass on, give them the best chance to have them readable - currently M-Disc.

Some old 9 track EBCDIC or ASCII tapes were readable when last I tried after several decades, but not sure about older 7 track BCD ones because I could not easily find a working drive to use. Its mostly old programs written for almost forgotten computers, but having some small sentimental value.

Hopefully drives to read current disc types will still be around in a few decades if someone wants to copy the contents to some newer media type.

FWIW, an M-Disc person once said that they could have just as easily said 10,000 years for the actual medium they are etching into, but it is the plastic disc that made them decide to stop at 1,000 years.

Some of the better hard disk drives today have a 2 million hour MTBF of running (in a datacenter like environment, not cycling on/off as at home with crappy power and large temperature swings), and that sure beats a mere 1.2 million hour drive's MTBF that was only 136 years. Obviously any individual drive might fail in a week, but over many thousands some should exceed the MTBF.

So 1,000 years for an M-Disc with no electronics and no lubricants and no heads to crash or bearings to wear out, sure, why not?

With a SATA OEM packaged (plastic bag with Blu-Ray s/w CD and screws) 16x Blu-Ray raw drive that also does DVD M-Discs is often less than $60, and the DVD only version (probably no included CD) is at less than $16, anyone can afford upgrading to be able to be making longer life discs!

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