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Sony’s decision to end 3.5-inch disk production is just another signal that local storage media and platforms cannot be trusted with your precious data.

The history of data storage and backup is littered with the corpses of dead formats. Seven years ago I wrote about the beginning of the end of 3.5-inch floppy disks. At the time, it was still a popular portable storage medium, and I was derided as a heretic. Now, Sony has finally decided to stop making 3.5-inch floppy disks, which pretty much marks the end of the format.

It’s worth noting the demise of any popular format because it has a ripple effect on the technology world. In 2003, when Dell decided to stop putting 3.5-inch floppy drives in its computers, we were already seeing the proliferation and use of USB drives. Back then, they had capacities that, while many times greater than the best floppy disk, were still miles away from where they are now (these days, it’s not unusual to carry around a 4-GB USB drive).

Personally, I don’t know anyone who still uses 3.5-inch floppies, but I bet if I asked you or anyone else, you’d admit to still having a box or two stashed somewhere. Most are probably filled with data that you always promised yourself you’d migrate to another medium. You probably did the same thing with the old truly “floppy” 5.25-inch disks. That data is trapped on its obsolete format as well.

Perhaps that’s the real story today: Another once-popular format plays Dodo and we start worrying about what happens when there are no more drives available to read the medium.

In my house, I have a computer, with an old 3.5-inch floppy drive (my only one), an Iomega Jaz Drive, and a ZIP drive. Packed away somewhere in a box, I also have a system with a 5.25-inch floppy drive. I keep all this on hand in the futile hope that I’ll finally get around to recovering all that data that’s trapped on a various extinct mediums.

I suspect that my scenario is not all that unusual and not worth much discussion. However, it should give us all pause; with so many storage mediums now gone or on their way out, what’s next? At the tail end of my 2003 column, I mused that I could move all of my 3.5-inch data to a CD-R drive. Optical drives had reached ubiquity by the late 1990s and writable drives were the norm in 2003. Still, I worried about what might happen if the CD-R drive fell out of favor. I even considered moving my data to the next big thing in personal data storage (at least it was in 2003): DVD-R drives.

The fact is that storage mediums and the drives that read and write them are not permanent like Mt. Rushmore. Instead, they’re more like our sandy beaches, which seem permanent but are slowly but surely washing out to sea. One day you’ll come back for a swim and they’ll be gone entirely. In 2003, CD-Rs seemed pretty permanent, but it was only a few years later that I was actually recommending that manufacturers stop putting optical drive in laptops. Downloadable software meant I no longer needed the drives for application installation, and my portable storage needs were covered by thumb, or USB, drives. No manufacturer has pulled optical drives from desktops, but many laptops are sold without them.

As space on USB keys and flash media, such as SD and Micro SD cards, reach the storage levels of hard drive, optical drives’ fortunes may come tumbling down. Blu-ray drives still outstrip, by a country mile, the storage capacities of all other consumer optical mediums and most flash media, but the cost for the media is prohibitive, and most computers do not sell with Blu-ray writers.

I think it’s fair to say that optical storage will someday meet the same fate as the 3.5-inch floppy. USB drives and SD and Micro SD cards could, someday, too.

This is the natural progression of technology. That said, consumers and businesses face a tough decision: Where do you put your data? Keeping outmoded technology can become expensive and is usually a losing game, since the software often ends up leaving legacy storage mediums behind. Case in point: I will never forget when Windows XP essentially bricked all of my 1-GB Jaz drives.

Interestingly enough, when cornered, we all often fall back to one of the original storage mediums: the spinning hard drive.

Yet, even hard drives have a technology nipping at their heels—Solid State Drives (SSD). Like their flash-based cousins, SSDs don’t spin, and they cost more per gigabyte than traditional hard drives. On the other hand, the lack of moving parts could mean that they have a longer lifespan than hard drives, which inevitably fail. Theoretically, we could all be using SSD-only PCs by 2020. Then again, maybe we’ll be storing data in a completely different medium altogether like holographic storage.

The only sure thing in technology is, as we all know, change. So what should companies and consumers do? The former, at least, probably have the resources to upgrade their storage methods continually; though recent tough economic times may have put storage upgrades at the bottom of the priority list. Consumers usually don’t change storage methods until it’s too late. Sometimes they never do at all, and they end up leaving data on all sorts of orphaned storage media. You could, I guess, do as I and many others have done and try and keep every kind of media reader/player in your house, so it becomes a sort of technology museum. Yet, I think there’s a better way.

As I see it, it’s time to take the task of managing storage platforms out of the hands of consumers and individual businesses. It’s time for everyone to consider cloud-based options seriously. I know that people fear the cloud. What if the Internet goes down? Okay, maybe you’d lose access for an hour or even a whole day. It’s highly unlikely you’ll lose access for any longer than that. What more, I’m not proposing that all storage happen in the cloud, just backup (real-time mission critical files will usually have to be local). Instead of people and companies using ad-hoc media and putting it in a drawer, let’s back it all up to companies whose job it is to store data. Amazon’s S3 business, for example, has to keep up with the latest storage technologies and will always migrate your data to the next best thing. So will online backup companies like Mozy and Norton Online Backup. Consumers and businesses would never again have to worry about losing critical files because they can’t find a drive to read the data or they’ve learned, to their horror, that the software they use to read an old drive has just corrupted the entire thing because of compatibility issues.

Putting all of your data in the cloud may sound crazy, but it’s certainly much smarter than storing on eventually-to-be-obsolete media, which is akin to putting your memories in a lock box and throwing away the key.

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