Wearing a flash drive around your neck on a strap has become the badge of the genealogist researcher. It is obvious that with ample storage space for most research needs in a conveniently small and light package, the flash drive is almost indispensable. But how reliable are they? Should flash drives be used for "long term" storage of data? What should I be using to archive my valuable digital files?
During the past few years there have been a plethora of Internet articles on the lack of reliability of flash drives. A search on Google for "flash drive reliability 2010" returned 800,000 hits. In reviewing the articles, it is important to try to determine where the information is coming from. Many of the commentaries extolling the virtues and reliability of the flash drives come from either the manufacturers or people paid by them. What is evident is that the flash drive technology has improved greatly over the past few years, so that concerns expressed three or four years ago may no longer apply. But how do you go about answering the questions of reliability, long term storage and using flash drives as an alternative to external hard drives.
Flash drives (also called thumb drives and a few other names) use solid state memory cells to store information as opposed to hard drives that use a spinning disk and magnetic charges. Both types of memory are subject to mechanical failure. If you drop either a flash drive or a hard drive onto a hard surface, it will likely break and stop working. In addition, because of their small size and portability, flash drives are very prone to loss. The Mesa Regional Family History Center has a drawer dedicated to lost flash drives, usually left in the computers by the users.
Because they are electronic devices, flash drives are also subject to destruction by electrical shocks and heat. Leaving a flash drive in your car on a sunny day may cook it. Even putting your drive next to a strong electrical current, such as those in audio speaker systems, may destroy the data. More importantly, flash drives can only handle a finite number of write and erase cycles before failure. The number of cycles has been increasing in the past few years, but flash drives are not immortal, they are subject to failure. Because of their relatively small cost, it would be wise to replace the drives periodically, perhaps once a year or so.
If the choice is no backup or a flash drive, the decision is obvious, backups are important and necessary. But perhaps you might have one flash drive for backup and keep it in a secure location and another to carry around so people will know you are a serious genealogist.