I use budget flash drives to have redundant backups of important photos. But how long do they actually last? Am I going to be able to pull out a flash drive in 5-10 years and still access all those photos?
Storage devices, whether hard drives or solid state memory “flash" drives, are all marketed based on speed and storage capacity, without a mention of longevity. But nothing lasts forever. Heck, hard drives are typically only reliable for 3-5 years and then become increasingly prone to failures.
Online backup company BackBlaze analyzed its 25,000 hard drives and found that there was a 20% failure rate after four years of heavy use. I bet that’s a lot higher than you would have expected.
Turns out that SSD (solid state drives, just like your USB flash drive) have a longer shelf life, but here’s what’s weird: SSD drive lifespan is based on the number of times you write data to the device.
Data recovery firm Ontrack explains it thusly: “An electric effect [means] that data can only be written on a storage cell inside the chips between approximately 3,000 and 100,000 times during its lifetime. After that, the cells “forget" new data.“
Now 3,000 writes sounds like a lot, but if you’re actively adding files, deleting files, renaming data, extending an existing file, you can hit that number in months, not years. Even 10 changes/day means that the lower end of your flash drive’s lifespan is less than a year. If you have good quality devices (never risk no-name or budget storage!) then you’ll be closer to that upper end of 100,000 writes. Then 10 writes per day gives you a theoretical 10,000 days of active use, or about 27 years. Less anxiety provoking, for sure.
Not only that, but SSD drive data retention can also be affected by temperature: Leave it in the glove compartment of your car and the extreme heat of the summer will increase the chance that it’ll fail to retain data.
Before you panic, however, realize that most of this is relating to what hardware engineers refer to as “MTBF" or mean time between failures. In essence, you could be on the low end and have things last a distressingly short amount of time, but more likely you’ll be average and land somewhere in the middle of these ranges. So maybe five years of active daily use for a flash drive before it starts to fail, and maybe ten years for long-term storage.
There’s no forever storage device, and even optical disks decay over decades. My suggestion if you’re really worried: cloud backups. They solve the problem by using RAID arrays (redundant disks storing the same data) to sidestep individual drive failures.
Now you know. Good luck!