You may very well be the king of backing up your data regularly, but archiving your data is a completely different ball game. Here’s how you can archive your digital files and keep them around for generations to come.

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You probably have loads of photos and videos taken of precious memories stored on your computer or in the cloud somewhere. And it’s safe to assume that you care enough about those files that you back them up somehow. That’s great and all, but do you have a plan for how you’re going to store those files for 50+ years and beyond? Archiving is all about long-term storage.

Backups vs. Archives

On the surface, backups and archives are fairly similar, but they serve different purposes. A backup is a copy of your regularly-accessed data (apps, documents, etc.) that’s available for when you experience any kind of data loss—you can bring in your backup to recover any of that lost data.

An archive, on the other hand, consists of data that you likely don’t access regularly (photo memories, finished documents, anything you don’t want to delete necessarily, etc.). This data is moved to a separate storage device for long-term retention. It can still be accessed when need be, although maybe not quite as easily as a backup.

And the side benefit of archiving data that doesn’t change much is that it no longer has to be part of your regular backup system.

What to Use to Archive Your Data

Since long-term retention is the name of the game, you want to store your archived data on a storage medium that will last for as long as possible. Since different storage mediums have different life expectancies, not just any medium will do the trick.

Depending on how much data you want archived, you also may want a cheap solution, since the cost of storage can add up quickly when you need to archive terabytes of data.

Now, there’s no one single solution that everyone should use; there are pros and cons for each. Let’s go over some different options and whether or not they’d be right for you.

Hard Drives

Hard drives are the most common type of storage medium, and it’s probably the first thing you think of when coming up with solutions for storing a lot of data.

They’re cost effective as well, ranging anywhere between $16-$20 per terabyte for most external hard drives, and you can fit a lot of data onto a single drive.

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The only downsides are that the drives themselves can take up a lot of space (especially for full-size 3.5″ drives), and they can be fairly delicate with the all the moving parts inside. You do have to treat them with some care.

You might also be concerned about a hard drive’s lifespan, but since it will be in cold storage and unused, it should technically last for quite a while—15 years isn’t unreasonable. Just make sure to spin it up every year or two to keep the moving parts inside from seizing up.

Flash Storage

USB flash drives, memory cards, and solid-state drives are all examples of flash storage, but are they good for archiving data? They can be, but it’s not very cost effective.

The long-term retention abilities of flash storage isn’t quite as well-known as it is for hard drives, since flash storage hasn’t been around as long. However, I’ve had USB flash drives continue to work perfectly after 10+ years, so the potential is definitely there.

Where flash storage gets really interesting for archival use is with its robustness and size. Since flash storage uses no moving parts, you don’t have to treat it as delicately as a hard drive. Furthermore, you can fit quite a bit of data on a physically tiny flash drive—512GB and even 1TB flash drives are becoming more common.

Of course, the cost of flash storage is way more expensive. Even a super cheap 64GB flash drive breaks down to about $235 per terabyte, which is around 10 times more expensive than the cost of hard drive storage.

Then again, if you only have 64GB of data to archive, a hard drive is a bit overkill, so flash storage can be a good solution for this kind of scenario.

Blu-ray Discs

Most commonly linked as a medium to distribute TV shows and movies, Blu-ray discs are also great for just general storage of data. As long as you have a writable Blu-ray disc drive, you can put any file you want on a Blu-ray disc (better known as a BD-R disc when it comes to writing data to it).

Specifically, BD-R HTL discs are rated to last a couple hundred years (although take that with a grain of salt), and they’re pretty cheap when you calculate the cost per terabyte. A stack of 50 BD-R discs at 25GB each costs $24, and the total storage you get from that stack equals 1.25TB, which comes out to $19.20 per terabyte—about the same cost as hard drive storage.

Of course, you need a BD-R drive to write the data to the discs, like this one from ASUS for just under $90. So that’s an added cost to consider. Plus, the data won’t write to BD-R discs quite as fast as other storage mediums, but that’s not really a huge concern for write-once applications.

LTO Tapes

Perhaps an uncommon, but popular form of archival storage is the LTO tape (Linear Tape-Open). It’s mostly popular amongst the hardcore archivers, and that’s because it’s great for archiving hundreds of terabytes.

LTO tapes have a super low cost-per-terabyte price point. While the up-front cost is incredibly high (nearly $1,500 for a 20-pack of LTO-7 tapes), it breaks down to just $11.50 per terabyte for uncompressed storage.

Of course, you also need a tape drive to write the data onto the tapes, which are also really expensive. It’s really only a good solution for users who have hundreds of terabytes that they want to archive—casual archivers need not apply, for the most part.

Some Maintenance Will Be Required

No matter which storage medium you choose, it’ll require a bit of maintenance every now and then—don’t expect to put your data on a drive and store it away for 50 years without worry.

For starters, you’ll want to make sure to keep your archives in a climate-controlled environment away from heat and humidity, as this will keep your media from degrading too quickly. Because of this, it’s recommended to keep your archive in a safe deposit box or somewhere else that’s safe, offsite, and climate controlled.

Furthermore, as mentioned with hard drives, it’s a good idea to take them out of storage every year or two and stretch their legs. Plus, you’ll likely have more files to add to your archive anyway, so now is a great time to add those to your existing collection.

Another factor to consider are the interfaces that your media use and the possibility that they’ll eventually disappear. For example, if you have some files archived on a USB flash drive, the current USB-A standard will most likely be extinct several years from now and you’ll have a hard time finding a device that you’ll be able to plug the flash drive into. Because of that, it may be a good idea to audit the media interfaces you’re using for your archive once in a while, and make any changes if need be.

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Craig Lloyd is a smarthome expert with nearly ten years of professional writing experience. His work has been published by iFixit, Lifehacker, Digital Trends, Slashgear, and GottaBeMobile.
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