Samsung 850 EVO SSD with M.2 SSD and SATA hard drive 1
Corbin Davenport / How-To Geek
Archival-grade optical discs like M-DISC promise to last hundreds or even thousands of years. Tape storage lasts for a few decades, while hard drives and SSDs can be trusted for 5-10 years, but it all depends on how well you treat and store them.

While certain people had the luxury of writing important stuff on stone tablets, unfortunately most of us have preservation needs that go beyond ten lines of text. So what’s the next best thing to keep your bits crisp for centuries?

The Importance of Data Preservation

It’s easy to think of data preservation as something big companies or important people need to worry about, but what if you have information that you’ll need ten years or even fifty years from now? What if you need to preserve information somewhere for someone 100 years or more in the future?

For various reasons, you might need to hold onto data for a long time. Maybe you have some old documents or records that you’d like to pass down to future generations, or perhaps you need to keep financial records and other necessary paperwork around for legal reasons. Even if you’re trying to preserve your personal memories, like photos or videos, you’ll need to figure out a way to store all that stuff.

The key to preserving data over the long term is finding a storage format you can trust to last. This could mean using physical storage methods, like high-quality paper or film designed to last a long time, or digital storage options, like cloud storage or external hard drives.

RELATED: The CDs You Burned Are Going Bad: Here's What You Need to Do

The Challenges of Storing Digital Data for Decades or Centuries

If you’re thinking about storing digital data for the long term, there are several challenges you should be aware of.

First, digital storage media like hard drives and SSDs can degrade over time and eventually fail. That means you must keep making new copies of long-term data before your storage devices fail.

Another challenge to consider is file format obsolescence. Some file formats may become outdated or incompatible with newer software as technology advances. That means even if your storage media survives, there may be no drives to read it, and even if there are, the details of the file formats you used to store that data might be lost.

On the other hand, every time you migrate your current data to a newer format to preserve it for a few more years, it might degrade in some way that won’t become apparent until someone tries to access it someday.

Hackers, malware, and natural disasters can all threaten your stored data, so it’s important to implement strong security measures to protect your information and to store the media in an environment that’s both safe for that media and offers long-term stability.

Cold Storage vs. Hot Data

In data storage parlance, “cold” storage refers to how rarely accessed data is stored. This is usually data kept for compliance or other necessary record-keeping irrelevant to day-to-day business.

Cold storage is often offline, and the media holding the data is stored in a powered-off state or separately from the drives that can read the relevant press. If data is kept in cold storage, this can affect how long it will last.

“Hot” data is always accessed and is usually stored in media that’s always accessible and powered on. As you might expect, these media wear out through daily use, so archival data and backups aren’t a good fit.

The Best Long-Term Digital Storage Media

Archival-grade optical discs, such as M-DISC, are designed specifically for long-term data storage. Unlike CDs and DVDs, hey use a special type of data layer made of materials that are resistant to degradation over time, including UV light and moisture. Two factors are commonly responsible for “disc rot.” These discs can last for up to 1000 years or more—at least that’s what the various manufacturers claim. Obviously, it’s impossible to actually test this claim, but they can make an educated guess through testing.

Verbatim M-Disc BDXL100GB

They say these discs will last several hundred years, so you better hope they still have Blu-ray players in the year 2500.

Magnetic tape has been used for decades as reliable long-term data storage. It’s highly durable and can withstand extreme temperatures and humidity. It’s also relatively inexpensive compared to other options.

Generally, magnetic tape stored in cold storage with stable temperature and humidity conditions can last for up to 30 years or more, while some high-quality magnetic tapes can last for up to 50 years or more.

However, magnetic tapes need specialized equipment for reading and writing data. That machinery might not last as long as you need it to since a tape drive is a complex mechanical device.

Fuji LTO Ultrium 6 Tape Cartridge 10 Pack

These Ultrium LTO tape cartrides are rated for over a million passes and have a projected lifespan of 50 years or more.

Mechanical hard drives have been used for decades as primary storage for computers. They’re reliable, fast, and relatively inexpensive.

That said, they’re not designed for long-term storage, and the average lifespan of an HDD is as little as 3-5 years. If you choose to use HDDs for long-term storage, you should regularly back up your data and replace the drives every few years.

The Best NAS Hard Drives of 2023

Seagate IronWolf Pro 8TB NAS
Best NAS Hard Drive Overall
Seagate IronWolf Pro 8TB NAS
Western Digital Red Plus 4TB NAS
Best Value NAS Hard Drive
Western Digital Red Plus 4TB NAS
Seagate IronWolf 18TB NAS
Best High Capacity NAS Hard Drive for Home
Seagate IronWolf 18TB NAS
Seagate Exos X20 20TB Enterprise HDD
Best High-Capacity NAS Hard Drive for Business
Seagate Exos X20 20TB Enterprise HDD
Western Digital Red SA500
Best NAS Solid State Drive
Western Digital Red SA500

SSDs are faster and more reliable than HDDs, but they are more expensive and not designed for long-term storage, and the average lifespan of an SSD is around 5-10 years. If you use SSDs for long-term storage, you should also ensure that you regularly back up your data and replace the drives every few years. If the SSD isn’t powered on periodically, it can still suffer from data loss as electrical charge leaks from its memory cells.

The Best Internal SSDs of 2023

Samsung 870 EVO
Best Internal SSD Overall
Samsung 870 EVO
WD Blue SN550 NVMe Internal SSD
Best Budget Internal SSD
WD Blue SN550 NVMe Internal SSD
Best Internal SSD for Gaming
Samsung 980 PRO SSD with Heatsink
Best Internal NVMe SSD
Samsung 980 PRO SSD with Heatsink
XPG SX8200 Pro
Best Internal M.2 SSD
XPG SX8200 Pro
Samsung 970 EVO Plus
Best internal PCIe SSD
Samsung 970 EVO Plus

The last option is cloud storage, which puts the responsibility of keeping your data safe in the hands of a third-party company like Google or Microsoft. These companies have to conform to data storage standards to make sure your data is safe, but it’s not really an option for truly long-term storage because there’s no guarantee the company in question will still be around in ten, twenty, or fifty years.

Profile Photo for Sydney Butler Sydney Butler
Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
Read Full Bio »