Hard drives not so safe for archival

June 12, 2009

I’ve had a debate before online on the relative safety of various types of media for long term archival and storage. The debate has raged on the longevity of optical media, CD, DVD. I haven’t found a great consensus regarding optical media, other than if properly cared for, treating them gently and avoiding exposure to sunlight, they can last for years.


The other media that is often mentioned these days is the use of hard drives. There are some points to be made regarding their longevity.

  • The protocols used to communicate with hard drives evolves over time, generally more quickly than optical media. ATA, ATA133, SATA, SATA2 and external drives, USB2, Firewire, eSATA, FW800. The point being that they evolve over time and you may not be able to access it in the future.
  • Fragility. Hard drives are fragile. Can’t handle them too rough, careful to avoid static electricity.
  • Time. Hard drives are mechanical with moving parts. Over time lubricants can migrate and degrade making them less reliable.

I’ve made some of these points before, but never actually experienced any issues. In fact I have never had a personal hard drive fail, although I have had many corporate issue hard drives fail.

There’s always a first time.

I went through my stack of old hard drives to see what I could use.

I have 15GB and 30GB drive made in 2000 that are ATA, but both failed to communicate properly with my external enclosure.

I have recently been using a 120GB Maxtor drive that was made in 2005. I thought that was pretty recent. I’ve used it extensively of late and decided to copy some files to archive.

A few days later I went to access the files, powered up the drive to be met with total silence. The hard drive failed to spin up.

I ended up twisting the drive rapidly trying to get the platter moving just after turning it on. It eventually did the trick and it reluntantly spun up. The drive worked well enough to copy all my critical files off of it. The entire next day the drive worked fine, spinning up and down all day. I let it cool off over night to be greeted again by total silence and no spinup. With the twisting trick I was able to get it to spin up but its not having errors reading from the drive.

This has taught me that the possible issues with hard drive archival are real. Optical media is looking more promising. Lowest prices I could find today include DVD+RW for $0.67 each, DVD+DL for $0.97, BD-RE25GB for $7, BD-RE50GB for $25.