USB Flash Backup
March 16, 2009 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Are USB memory sticks a smart or stupid backup solution?

I've been burning my wife's iPhoto subdir to CD/DVD but that's a hassle not to mention the problem of optical media not working for long term storage. I was thinking of a pair of external drives so that we could store one offsite when I suddenly remembered that USB flash memory sticks exist now.

She's got about 13GB of data from ~5 years. 20-30GB, which would cost around $50-$80, should last until technology mutates again. I was thinking she could even just carry it around in her purse or pocket, but we could also still buy 2 and swap one offsite.

Is this a hare-brained scheme or a clever (or even banal) use of existing technology? I'd actually just go for it, but the usage pattern will be a little different than what I imagine the typical pattern is. Rather than a lot of little writes, this would likely be a completely re-write every few weeks. Also, I don't know how glitchy memory sticks may be. Any experiences with this?
posted by DU to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

Flash memory is in fact extremely durable and almost impossible to damage. Usage shouldn't be a problem, you can get millions of re-writes on modern chips.

Just don't lose them.
posted by Mwongozi at 7:49 AM on March 16, 2009

It depends on your goals. In particular, how long do you want the data to last? Data in Flash memory decays more quickly (<>
Everyone else will recommend Mozy. I haven't used them, but it's probably a cheaper and more reliable solution.
posted by goingonit at 7:50 AM on March 16, 2009

oops, markup issue. What I meant to say is, data in Flash memory decays in under a decade's time, whereas optical media is supposed to last for up to 100 years. But if you're rewriting every few weeks, not an issue.
posted by goingonit at 7:51 AM on March 16, 2009

Have to say that it is not smart, based solely on personal experience. I've had about three flash memory sticks fail on me in the last four years. By 'fail' I mean sometimes they would stop responding all together, and sometimes they would get into a state where they had constant read/write errors. One of these was a cheap, non-brand memory stick but two were rather expensive brand prodcuts. I will never trust them as a sole backup.

Also, if they do fail, I am not sure about data recovery. Often when a hard disk fails it is possible to recover the data (at a cost). Does anyone know if the same can be said for USB drives?
posted by theyexpectresults at 7:54 AM on March 16, 2009

I'd have to be even lazier than experience has proven me to be if I didn't back up for a full 10 years. But I don't think consumer-grade optical media lasts 100 years. More like 100 weeks.
posted by DU at 7:56 AM on March 16, 2009

It sounds like a fine plan as long as that USB stick is not ever your only copy. They might be durable, but they do get abused in purses and banged around a lot, they're very small and easy to lose (and purses are stolen) and they are in theory susceptible to magnetic fields that could wreck them.

I do sort of what you suggest, but in reverse... I use a 32Gb USB stick on my keychain as ALL my in-progress work (and a few favorite apps) as I move between desks and sofas and buildings and cities. I used to use an iPod the same way, but since switching to smaller-capacity iPhone... no room.

At each stop, I dump a copy of the whole thing (encrypted disk image) to the local computer of the hour as a backup. So I have dozens of backups scattered all over, but the main/current version is always in my pocket.

32Gb memory sticks can be had for about US$25 if you catch a sale.
posted by rokusan at 7:58 AM on March 16, 2009

I also use DVDs for extra backup, and just retrieved a file from a CDR that was 12 years old, so they definitely last more than 100 weeks!
posted by rokusan at 7:59 AM on March 16, 2009

I was actually going to ask about online solutions but then thought I'd better stick to one question at a time. Also, I'm on DSL. I routinely download large files *cough* but upload speeds are a lot worse. Not unpossible, but added on top of the non-transparency of a private business solution....?
posted by DU at 7:59 AM on March 16, 2009

I would say smart, only don't rely on just two. Get 4 and keep them on rotation, checking at least one for integrity every month even if not updated. That way if one does fail, you've got 3 that are fairly up-to-date and the chances of all 4 failing simultaneously are quite slim.
posted by jmd82 at 8:00 AM on March 16, 2009

If the data is important, then don't just copy it to a usb stick. You'll definitely lose it at some point. Encrypt the stick, and store the encryption key somewhere safe and offsite (in two parts if possible).

You don't actually have that much data, so why not remove the manual part of the process, and automatically backup. After the first run it should be fast. Encrypt!
posted by devnull at 8:23 AM on March 16, 2009

Flash memory is in fact extremely durable and almost impossible to damage. .

Anecdotefilter: I recently accidentally forgot a USB stick in a pocket and sent it through the laundry. After a wash and a dry, I found the thing in the dryer and it worked fine.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:28 AM on March 16, 2009

I don't trust incremental backups. I know it's the industry standard, but I'm a firm believer in bit rot. Do it all every time, in multiple locations in possible (thatswhatshesaid).

Where can I find 32GB for $25, even on sale? Is that for no-name? Not that unreliable is necessarily bad. Counting the original computer and an online photo service (for the ones we've gotten prints of), a single stick would make 3 independent locations. Two sticks would be a total of 4, which should be plenty of protection to cover even 2 simultaneous failures.
posted by DU at 8:29 AM on March 16, 2009

My no-name 32Gb was 39.99 at Target but that was like six months ago. It's boxy and aluminum and whatever the silkscreened logo was it's worn off now, so I don't remember the "brand". I have since seen them for 24.99 or so.

I also had a SanDisk 16Gb ("Cruzer Micro") that was the same price last year. Wal-Mart I think. I donated it to a girlfriend after upping to the 32. Both get heavy daily use and have been great. I can't tell the difference between the "brand-name" and generic ones. I suspect they have the same damn chips inside anyway.

Honestly, my chief criteria is "is this keychain ring connector tough enough looking to not break off?"
posted by rokusan at 8:45 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't trust incremental backups. I know it's the industry standard, but I'm a firm believer in bit rot.

What other superstitions are you expecting us to consider when recommending backup solutions? Bit rot exists, but when you're talking about the robust, fault-tolerant RAID arrays that online backup solutions use, you're more likely to come home from work to see Santa Claus doing the Tooth Fairy on your kitchen table than to have any sort of "bit rot" that actually impacts your data.

Daily/weekly incrementals, monthly/quarterly fulls depending on usage. That's the best way to do this. For 50GB the cost of an online service to do this would be trivial and it would be automated.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:45 AM on March 16, 2009

A lot of electronics inside a memory stick, maybe more likely to fail than a burnt CD/DVD. Here's my scheme: (1) daily backup to external hard drive; (2) weekly to encrypted memory stick for near-offsite storage in car; (3) once every few months to DVD for storage in safe deposit box and/or in relatives house. Generally no problem reading DVD/CD several years old.
posted by Kevin S at 8:57 AM on March 16, 2009

Flash is very durable against mechanical damage but it's too new to really have solid data on its long term survivability. I suspect it will be on par with optical so I'd be comfortable switching. Multiple backups would certainly be critical in either format.
posted by chairface at 10:11 AM on March 16, 2009

I dunno, Flash has been around for quite a while. The technology itself dates back to EEPROM, which is the same stuff they've been using since the 80s. If you've used any older digital device, chances are it's got some EEPROM in it that still works.

So yeah, it's pretty damn reliable. Moreso than optical media, as DU mentioned above.
posted by spiderskull at 12:08 PM on March 16, 2009

All backup solutions are smart as long as they're not the only backup solution.

If I were you, I'd:

1) Burn some DVDs and keep them at work -- consider this an 'archival' copy in case all else fails, and add to it incrementally as you have a new DVD's worth of pics.
2) Put it all on a USB drive and back up everything occasionally.
3) Use an online service to constantly backup. I hear great things about Carbonite. (good review)

Between all that and your hard drive, you should be okay.

One other things I'll be doing soon: Since I have 50GB of pics I want to keep, but only a small percentage of those that are truly special to me and should last even after I'm dead, I want to pick the absolute best and have them printed in a coffee table book, which I'll send to a few loved ones. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, as I migrate to a new computer: If I die tomorrow, who's going to care about all this? Who's going to keep migrating these many thousands of pics? No one, probably. Having the pics printed will ensure that the live on, at least for a little while.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:25 PM on March 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

I second coolguymichael's idea on printing out the pictures into a photo book. I've used in the past with great success.

My cousin had her laptop stolen. Aside from being worried about the identity theft issues, she's most distraught about the loss of all her pictures of her kid. Those can't be replaced (and unfortunately, she never printed them out). We've e-mailed her back a few of them that she sent us over the years, and she used some of them for a Christmas card, but the rest are gone for good.

Another thing to think about: if you're just backing up text files (like myself), you can do a daily backup by e-mailing yourself the file. Tedious, but free.
posted by math at 7:06 PM on March 16, 2009

Also, if you supplement with optical media, remember that not all media is created equal.
posted by jeremias at 5:39 PM on March 17, 2009

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