You have heard it all before. When writable CDs first hit the market, companies were touting a 100 year life span for the new technology. However, it did not take long for genealogist or the public at large to realize these were inflated estimates if not out right lies. Test after test, and real world experience, quickly showed the average life of a CD was closer to two to five years. Beyond a few years, significant physical corruption renders  discs unreadable. DVD provided more storage capacity on the same size disc, but suffer from the same limited life span. Now an new American Fork, UT company, Millenniata, Inc, claims to have a new type of disk with a 1,000 year shelf life. Is this just another marketing exaggeration, or could it be true?

Testing Technology

Let’s start by taking a look at the technology. The new M-Disc, as the company calls it, hold the same amount of data as a standard DVD, 4.7 GB, but is made using a different technology, providing a possible longevity not previously available in writable (burnable) optical discs. Writable CDs and DVDs are create by sandwiching layers of an organic dye and a reflective material between two layers of polycarbonate (plastic). The new M-Disc replaces the dye and the reflective layers with a single “rock” layer, made of an inorganic material which is chemically stable and heat resistant.

Data is stored on CDs and DVDs when a laser burns a hole in the Dye layer. Likewise, M-Discs are written by lasers burning a hole in the “stone” layer. The dyes used in CDs and DVDs are susceptible to heat and prolonged exposure to sun and elements. Keeping discs in a regulated archive vault, like those used to store rare and old books in libraries, is about the only way to extend their lives. The M-disc claims to endure all manner of environmental exposure without data loss. According to Millenniata’s website, independent testing was conducted by the The U.S. Department of Defense Naval Air Warfare Weapon’s Division facility at China Lake, California. Tests were conducted on 25 disc from six manufacturers. “The discs were stressed in a combined temperature, humidity, and light cycle (Section 1.2.2, p.3). The discs were subject to the following test conditions in the environmental chamber: 85°C, 85% relative humidity (conditions specified in ECMA-379) and full spectrum light (per MIL Std. 810G) (Figure 1-1, p.3). The test was repeated three times with identical results.”

Results

The results show “the M-DISC was the only optical disc tested that did not suffer data failure.” 100% of all the other discs failed, where none of the M-Discs failed. These results are impressive. Furthermore, according to Millenniata, the data layer could potentially endure for 10,000 years. It is actually the polycarbonate layer that will deteriorate first, which is how they determined a shelf life of only 1,000 years.

Making Use of the New Discs

The good news is these discs, once burned with data, can be played on any DVD or Blu-Ray player supporting the DVD+R/RW format, which is just about any player made after 2005. The downside is, to burn discs you will need a new device for your computer. Millenniata already has an agreement with LG who has produced three drives capable of burning M-Discs. One is an internal DVD writable drive for desktops and the other two are external Blu-Ray compatible drives, one a Blu-Ray burner. Discs and drives are currently available from Millenniata’s online store (http://store.millenniata.com/default.aspx). Both should soon be available at retail outlets.

What the Marketing Skips Over

While the technology appears sound, and clearly the M-Disc has a significant shelf life, other factors may affect the long-term usability of these discs. First, the problem all disc have, and the M-Disc does not fix or address, are scratches and physical damage done to the disc itself. These problems are mitigated by proper care and handling. Plus, there are ways to fix and restore damage to the polycarbonate layer using over-the-counter tools. Some CDs and DVDs place the reflective layer on top, as part of the label area, which will sometimes get scratched. The M-Disc does not suffer from such problems.

Other concerns have to do with the longevity of any technology. Will computers still use optical drive in 50 years, much less than 1,000 years form now. I guarantee no drive in 1,000 years, if even 50. Also, will the document, image and database files you save be readable by future software? Image files have gone through many renditions over the years. JPEG files have been popular for many years now. Most digital cameras save pictures as JPEG files. But when will someone create a better file type? As soon as a new technology is invented that captures the overall interest of the mainstream consumer, then the older formats begin to disappear. How many years this will take is impossible to determine with any accuracy, but it will happen.

Conclusion

Given the options available to genealogists, or any other computer users, the new M-Disc appears to be a leap forward in archival data storage. I have long recommended buying external hard drive over CD and DVD for archival purposes. With the M-Disk now available, I may just change my opinion. However, I still see some limitation people ought to consider before purchasing this new technology. If you plan to burn discs to backup your data and images, and will store that disc in a safe place, only to be used to restore data, then I believe this may be the technology for you. The disc is also an affordable way to share your family history with others in a way that can be preserved for many years. Users will still need to be careful not to bend or scratch their M-Discs, just as you must be careful not to scratch or bend CDs and DVDs. Because others won’t need to buy a new drive to read the disc, only to burn them, these make good replacements for DVDs.

1,000 years is about 990 years more than I expect any digital technology in its current form to last. If you want a tool to archive data for five to ten years, and have it accessible on your next computer or two, the M-Disc is probably a great option. If no other major change comes along in digital storage in the next few years, then maybe a computer 20 years from now will still be able to read optical discs from today. In the end, would I buy and use these discs for storage? I think so. But, I still consider digital copies a short-term archival solution. When it comes down to long-term archiving if my family history, stories, and images, I still like good old-fashioned paper, printed and bound in a book with archival quality paper with a  library binding with a copied stored in a protected location.