Computer storage is both a blessing and a curse. We can store terabytes of photos, documents, and more on our home PC. However, these data cannot be kept forever. This is due to a phenomenon known as bit red or data decay.
Bit red – the slow death of hard drives and SSDs
Regardless of whether it is SSDs or old-fashioned mechanical hard drives – both storage media have only a limited ability to preserve the stored data when they are not in use. But that doesn’t mean that you always have to leave your PC switched on. But anyone who thinks that it is a good idea to expand an HDD with valuable data and store it in a safe is unfortunately wrong. So what should we do with the amount of data that is on our storage drives and has a limited shelf life?
To understand what is behind Bit Rot, we first have to explain how data is stored in the first place. Magnetism is used in HDDs so that individual data bits (i.e. all ones and zeros) can be stored in so-called clusters. However, the bits can reverse themselves over time, which can lead to data corruption. To counteract this, hard drives have an Error Correcting Code (ECC) that searches for bad bits during the read process. If an error is detected, the hard drive will correct it if possible.
SSDs, on the other hand, do not use any moving parts like hard drives. You’re using a different method of storing bits. These media use an insulating layer to store charged electrons in microscopic transistors – in a very simplified way.
The S.M.A.R.T.values (read out here with the Crystaldiskinfo tool) provide information about the state of your hard drive or SSD.
But how does the phenomenon of the bit red come about? In HDDs, as mentioned above, stored bits can reverse their magnetic polarity. If this happens to a large extent without correction, then a bit of red can be the result. SSDs, on the other hand, lose data when the insulating layer decomposes and the charged electrons escape.
How long it takes in practice for this data deterioration to occur depends on a number of factors. Hard drives have the potential to function with intact data for decades, even if they are not used for long periods of time. SSDs, on the other hand, should lose their data in the same state within a few years. In fact, the data on an SSD can be lost even faster if it is stored in locations with atypically high temperatures.
During operation, however, it behaves quite differently: The storage media usually last until they encounter typical problems, such as hardware failures or the achievement of maximum read / write cycles with SSDs. You can also lose data from other problems such as malware, corrupted firmware, exposure to water, or other random incidents that have nothing to do with Bit Rot.
This is how you avoid bit rot and other memory errors
First, make sure that the drives that you are actively using are working properly. For example, you can use the S.M.A.R.T.status (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology). It informs you about the current state of your hard drive and whether a failure is imminent. A free tool like the tried and tested one is sufficient to read out the values
. Alternatively, you can set a limit for how long you want to keep a hard drive or SSD. When the limit is reached, replace it with a new model. By the way: In the past, SSDs were not considered to be as reliable as hard drives when actively used, but this is no longer the case. You can assume that an SSD will last about as long as a conventional hard drive.
Hard disks and SSDs don’t last forever, especially if they are not used, because “bit red” or data deterioration can destroy the stored data.
The following applies roughly:
A storage drive should not be kept for more than about five years. However, that doesn’t mean that drives can’t function smoothly for much longer. The longer you are in use, the more important a reliable backup solution becomes. There are special archiving drives for this. If you store data on a normal hard drive or SSD in a closet or a safe, it makes sense to install and use them from time to time. Better yet, let them run on a regular schedule. This will keep your storage media in good condition. The risk of bit rot or other problems is reduced.
With HDDs, it is sufficient to start them up once a year or every two years to prevent the mechanical parts of the hard drive from seizing up. You should also “refresh” the data by copying it again or by using a third-party program such as Disk Fresh. SSDs do not need the latter step as they just need to maintain their voltage. However, it is advisable to operate it for a few minutes about twice a year.
Another way to store data is to use custom-made archival storage media, such as Verbatim’s M-Disc Bluray discs, which are supposed to keep data for a thousand years – even if it’s difficult to test, of course. They are available in various capacities from 25 to 100 gigabytes per disc. However, their writing speeds are quite slow, so the archiving process can take a long time.
Whichever archiving option you choose, the following always applies: It is best to keep multiple copies of the data in different locations to ensure that you do not suffer any data loss.
Check the HDD with Windows on-board resources and tools