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Hard-core data preservation: The best media and methods for archiving your data

Jon L. Jacobi | March 1, 2016
Daily backup isn’t archiving. If you want your data to survive the decades, you need to use the right tools.

Then there’s the ongoing cost in the form of monthly fees, and in some cases transfer charges. Also, speed and availability are limited by your online connection (DSL often has very slow upload speeds) and when your service is down, your archive is unavailable. There are also privacy and security concerns. I consider these trivial, but just FYI—the NSA had a hand in funding just about every open-source encryption project out there.

Caveats aside, having an offsite copy of your data is one of the mantras recited by backup and archival gurus. If a flood, hurricane, fire, or ex-spouse ruins your local backup, you’ve got another to fall back on.

Advice: If you use online storage, use it as a partner to local backup. That said, it’s a lot better than not archiving at all.

Active Archiving

I wouldn’t mention “active archiving” at all if it weren’t bandied about in hard drive sales literature without explanation. Active archiving has nothing to do with hard drives, per se. It’s simply the act of shuttling data between media in a storage area network or SAN with the goal of keeping the most frequently accessed data on the fastest media (RAM or SSDs) and the least frequently accessed data on slower tape or optical, with hard drives somewhere in middle.  


There are myriad backup strategies used by pros and in enterprise environments. I’ll forego complicated strategies that average users (like myself) don’t have the time or patience to implement and stick with the basics:

1. The rule of three dictates that you always keep three copies of your data: a working copy, a backup, and a backup of your backup—preferably in another location, or off-site as it’s known in the biz.

In archiving, you may not work with the aforementioned first copy, but stick with the rule of three (or more) anyway.

2. Don’t bother with trivial or unfinished data. Archive only irreplaceable data that’s in its final state: legal or financial documents, important memorabilia, your creative efforts, etc. If you can download it again, reinstall it, or if you are still working on it, don’t bother—you’ll just waste time and space. Let your everyday backup take care of it. Also take the opportunity to de-duplicate and prune your data before you archive.

3. Use write-once media, or write-protect your rewritable media to mitigate the chance of accidental overwrites. You can write-protect hard drives using Windows Diskpart utility and the command “att vol set readonly” after selecting the proper drive and partition. Replace “set” with “clear” to make it writeable again.

4. Don’t use the proprietary file containers (a large file containing smaller files) that many backup programs create, or compression if you can help it. Use a file system or format that you know will be readable in the future, and store the data as plain files. FAT, NTFS, HFS, EXT, ISO 9660, UDF, etc., or any of their variants, should be readable for some time. If you must use compression, make sure it’s something universal such as ZIP.


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