Storing Files on Optical Media

For a number of years now, nearly a decade, I’ve been saving files for backup and archival on to optical media. In the early 2000’s, I was using CD-Rs as my primary backup media and more recently, I’ve been using DVD-Rs. In recent years, I’ve mostly been concerned with archiving my photos. With two little ones at home, I tend to take a lot of pictures, and I’d like to keep those around.

In fact, just the other day, I came across a backup CD from 2000. The label was something descriptive like, August 2000 Backup, so I put it in my MacBook and it loaded right up. By the way, lots of useless crap on that CD. I have no idea why I thought I needed to archive that stuff… But at least the CD was still in good working order. Good news, right?

Not so fast my friends…

Optical Media
Optical Media

I was reading through some threads this morning on a Mac that were talking about interesting ways to create contact sheets for DVDs that contain lots of archived photos. One of the comments pointed to a New York Times blog about the shelf life of optical media, stating that many low end DVDs have a shelf life of less than 5 years. Yikes!

Now, in my mind, the New York Times doesn’t have the best record when it comes to the telling the whole story, or in some cases, the truth at all… So I set out to do a bit research to see just how long I could expect my newly imprinted DVDs to last.

The US Government has some interesting information about using optical media to temporarily store data. There are several links at the bottom of that FAQ that are also worth while.

One of the studies, Using CDs for Data Storage, is definitely worth while. It only talks about compact discs, but it is somewhat reassuring.

According to the National Media Laboratory’s findings, CDs could be relied on for data storage for at least five years, and that the best quality CDs could provide reliable data storage for at least 50 years.

That’s better news… At least for the useless crap I backed-up to CD back in the day. The study above doesn’t talk about DVDs and that’s what we’re all using today, so the search continued.

Seeing how Wikipedia is the destination for all knowledge today, I decided to poke around there to see what I could find. At last, something reassuring about all those DVDs filled with family pictures.

Per Wikipedia (link):

According to the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA), “manufacturers claim life spans ranging from 30 to 100 years for DVD, DVD-R and DVD+R discs and up to 30 years for DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM”, although a manufacturer of 24-karat gold-based DVDs claims lifespans of up to 300 years.

The Optical Storage Technology Association has further information about using optical media as an archive medium. According to their page, Understanding DVD – Disc Longevity:

The life span of a written disc depends upon a number of factors including such things as the intrinsic properties of the materials used in the disc’s construction, the quality of its manufacture, how well it is recorded and the way it has been handled and stored.

In plain English, I read that as, “the life span of your DVD depends”, or “we really don’t want to commit to a specific time frame”, but thank you for buying…

I was talking with Jim while I was doing the research to write this up. He had a great idea for extending the life of your DVD media.

Store the DVD in a jewel case, then use one of those vacuum packed food storage bags to hold the jewel cases.

Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

You know, I learned something today.

  1. Take good care of the optical media you use.
  2. Buy high quality DVDs and/or CDs (stop buying the $4 for 100 CD spindles!)
  3. Disc Rot is a thing of the past (proof)
  4. Properly handled DVDs should last at least 5 years and likely much longer than that.
  5. No solution lasts forever… You’re going to have to move those archives to some new media at some point.