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Inside TDV - The Data Vault Blog

What In The World Is Bit Rot?

“Bit rot is the slow deterioration of stored information and software code – even if the data has remained unused and nothing has changed.”

Also known as data decay or data degradation, bit rot has proven to be a more serious problem for large archives and organizations than originally thought. Once regarded as a bogeyman that existed only in computer science theories, time has shown that physical media will gradually lose it’s information without any action taken by users. Much like the process of wood rotting that it’s named after, bit rot can remain hidden at first as it only affects small pieces of information at a time; but in the long run will undermine the ability of software to operate and can make essential information unreadable.

The idea that digital bits in deep storage can gradually be destroyed by time has many analogies in other areas of records management; paperwork stored improperly is famously susceptible to destruction via moisture and bleaching from the sun. However, the science behind why it degrades (and ultimately how to prevent it) is very different. Depending on the type of device used to store your information, there are a number of reasons that it can begin to corrupt but all devices are susceptible to it’s effects:

  • Flash drives and solid state hard drives use electrical charges to store their data, which leak away over the years due to imperfect insulation. The chips themselves are not affected by this issue, so re-writing the information about once a decade can largely keep it at bay.
  • Magnetic tapes and floppy disks can experience decay as the data bits lose their magnetic orientation, rendering them unreadable. They are also susceptible to literal rotting if stored improperly in warm and humid environments.
  • CD and DVD disks are at risk because the materials they are made of tends to degrade with time. As anyone who has tried to play an old CD in their car’s stereo will tell you, sometimes they just won’t work without explanation due to the breakdown of their composition.

There are numerous anecdotes from places as high profile as the Library of Congress attesting to the war on bit rot and lost data, with varying levels of success. More advanced forms of storage show promise in solving this silent corruption, but there are easier and far more practical solutions in the meantime. The easiest way to solve the issue with any of the storage forms mentioned above is by scheduling regular backups of the information. Frequently the only way IT staff discover bit rot today is when long dormant files need to be pulled, and by that point it’s been so long since the original documentation that no uncorrupted copy exists. By keeping a constant update of information in progress, there is no chance for the information to sit on a shelf and literally “go bad”. Additionally, keeping media secured in a climate controlled environment will slow the process immensely. Dark and cool locations with low humidity will extend the lifespan of the devices to their maximum.

While the concept of “bit rot” isn’t an issue for the average person and their private data, business owners and organizations should take heed and be vigilant with watching for it’s effects. With adequate preparation, your information can remain usable and not just dust.

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