alan little’s weblog

the price of disks

15th January 2006 permanent link

“There are no good stories out there on how a family manages terabytes of data. None.” Bill de HÓra observes.

Indeed. I am old enough to remember working for IBM one what was then one of the larger databases in Europe: a whole terabyte of store sales data, housed on a thousand one-gigabyte disks. That was only ten years ago too. (These days you could have a petabyte for about the same money, although it would have to be two thousand 500 gigabyte disks.)

I passed the terabyte-in-my-living-room mark the year before last, and am now somewhere well north of two terabytes. Most of that consists of 500 gigabytes in my desktop computer and two backups thereof on LaCie firewire drives, one of which lives next to the computer and one at work as an offsite backup, swapped every couple of weeks. I used to just have one backup, until this article by Ken Rockwell inspired me to do something about having another one offsite.

The big problem now is that I’m alarmingly close to using up all 500 gigbytes (times three), and bigger than 500 gigabyte disks aren’t readily available or affordable yet. I suppose they wil be soon. 500 gigabytes nearly full up of what? About 200 each of music and photographs, plus other miscellaneous stuff.

This isn’t all really necessary. Most of the music is a backup of my CD collection, and so not as precious and irreplaceable as the photographs. Do I really need three backups of the backup? Until the whole collection just gets too big to back up feasibly, it’s just easier to synch everything with SuperDuper than it is to worry about different schedules and places for different things. (I don’t really need music in a lossless format either – the likelihood that my middle aged ears could hear any difference between that and a compressed format half the size or less is minimal)

I maybe need to re-examine my priorities here. I have most of my easily (albeit expensively) replaceable music CDs backed up; meanwhile most of my lifetime’s creative output is sitting completely un-backed-up next to the computer in the form of a cupboard full of slides and negatives, of which I have backup-quality digital scans of maybe one percent or less. Not that the negs and slides are nearly as vulnerable as the last two years’ digital photos: a tiny drive glitch could easily trash all those to the point where they would be retrievable only at vast expense by a data recovery service, whereas it would take a pretty big domestic catastrophe to destroy all the slides and negatives in a locked (albeit not fireproof) cupboard.

Burn CDs or DVDs? No thanks. How long would it take to back up 500 gigabytes onto CDs? About a year? Where would I put them? Besides, I’ve had plenty of only two or three year old burned CDs go unreadable. DVDs alleviate the burning problem somewhat but are even less archival. Tapes are expensive and also not really big enough. No, hard disks are the only viable way forward for the time being.

They’re not cheap, though – and I’m only dealing with music and still photos, I have hardly any video on the computer. And it’s a lot of hassle remembering to do it, and lugging the backup disks around. Last week I was fumbling round behind the computer with one of them and broke its Firewire 400 connector. It still has two Firewire 800 connectors, but those are only useful on a severely limited number of computers.

Let’s keep this all in perspective: in pre-PC days, my PhD supervisor told me he had a colleague who lost all his paper notes and drafts for a book in an office fire, and had to start again from scratch. At least most people these days most people have the option to avoid something like that happening to them, although lots apparently don’t care enough to bother.

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