If you’ve spent any time browsing the various forums or subreddits dedicated to data-hoarding, you’ve likely seen this common question being asked: “What are the best hard drive alternatives?”. This is often asked by newbie or aspiring data-hoarders and unfortunately, the question isn’t often satisfactorily answered. In fact, some people responding to this question can be quite dismissive and even rude.
The problem, of course, is that there isn’t enough substance to the question. Before providing an answer, we need to understand why alternatives to hard drives are even needed. Are you trying to replace our day-to-day storage systems? Are you trying to archive data for long-term retention and are worried about hard drive reliability over time? Are you trying to replace your backup solution with something not dependent on hard drives, etc?
In this post, I’m going to list some of the alternatives to hard drives. For each alternative, I’ll try to provide an example use case to which they’re suited. Hopefully, anyone asking this question, can scan down the list with their actual problem/use case in mind and see what some viable storage alternatives might be.
List of hard drive alternatives
Solid State Drives (SSD)
Use Cases: The user is trying to speed up their system. The user is worried about physical vibrations affecting their hard drive
I won’t provide an in-depth explanation of what SSDs are or how they work, as there’s plenty of other information online. Basically, an SSD is like a hard drive except it’s much faster (at both reading and writing data). Also, being solid-state (i.e. unlike a hard drive, it has no physical moving parts) an SSD is not affected by vibration or impact in the same way a traditional hard drive is.
If you’re a home user trying to increase the performance of your PC or are a mobile laptop user worried about vibrations harming your storage, then an SSD might be a valid alternative to a hard drive.
One downside of SSDs however is cost. They cost more per unit of storage (GB, TB, etc) than a traditional hard disk drive. With that said, for the amount of storage used on a run-of-the-mill system, an SSD will be fairly inexpensive overall.
Use Cases: The user is running out of space on their system. The user wants to share their data and collaborate with others
Over the past decade or so, cloud storage has really taken off, and prices have fallen significantly. If you’re just a home user or small business, it’s often easier and cheaper to sign up with a cloud storage provider to use their solution than it is to replace your system’s hard drive or to add a second drive.
In case you aren’t aware of what cloud storage is, let me explain. When you sign up with a cloud storage provider, they allocate a chunk of their storage space (hosted in their datacentre) to you. You’re allowed to access this storage space remotely over the Internet. You can upload and download your data, and even grant permission for others to access it too.
Providing you choose a reputable company, your cloud storage should be completely secure. If you have a reasonable Internet connection speed, you may not even realise you’re accessing your data from the cloud rather than from your local hard drive.
USB Flash Drives
Use Cases: Sharing or transporting significant amounts of data
A few years ago I was working in an office without high-speed Internet or WAN connectivity. Occasionally the software development team would need to transfer project data across town to their colleagues in a different office. At the time, they were transferring around 200GB, and the fastest way to achieve this was by “Sneakernet”. The developers used to copy their data to a 3.5″ SATA hard drive and either drive or take public transport across town.
Nowadays, with a moderate Internet connectrion, it would be possible to hold a copy of the data at each office and synchroise the two (i.e. sending the “delta”) over the Internet. Sending 200GB from scratch however, may still pose a problem and Sneakernet might still have the advantage in terms of speed.
Using a physical hard drive to transport this data is probably no longer necessary however. Thanks to the increase in the capacity of USB flash drives, it’s entirely feasible to hold 200GB of data on your keyring!
If you’re still using hard drives (internal or external) to share data with your colleagues or friends, take a look at how much space the data actually needs and see if using an inexpensive flash drive is the way to go.
Use Cases: Mitigating a hard drive failure
Although RAID setups typically make use of hard drives, many people working on critical projects have ditched their solitary hard drive and moved to a RAID setup.
RAID stands for “Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks”. Basically, a RAID setup makes use of several hard disk drives to provide a degree of redundancy. Typically you would configure a RAID in such a way that should one (or more) physical drives fail, no data is lost and the system continues to run. All you need to do is make sure you replace the failed disk(s) as soon as practical to restore the redundancy.
There are also some performance benefits to be had from employing RAID. It’s rather a complex topic however and there’s already lots on information on RAID online so you can perform your own research.
I should repeat the old mantra at this point: “RAID is not a backup”. Although RAID will protect you in the case of a failed disk or two, there are a whole lot of other scenarios that could cause you problems. If you accidentally overwrite a file, for example, RAID can’t help you. Likewise, if your system is infected by a virus or ransomware, or even succoms to “naturally” occuring corruption, RAID won’t be much help. Whether or not you’re running RAID, you need to make sure you have a robust backup routine in place and to make sure you occasionally test it!
Use Cases: Increased storage requirements, Sharing data between devices
A NAS, or Network Attached Storage device is a standalone unit, whose sole job is to store data and make it available to clients over the network. A NAS device typically uses hard drives, SSDs or a combination of the two. Although this article is exploring alternatives to hard drives, I’ve included NAS devices as most people see them as distinct from the hard drive they might already have inside their PC. Most NAS devices employ a RAID setup internally, so there’s a secondary benefit, as discussed earlier.
If you’ve reached the point where the hard disk in your computer is full and it’s already one of the larger models on the market, you might be wondering what your options are. Of course, you could likely add a second hard drive if your system supports one, but a growing number of people in this situation instead decide to invest in a NAS device.
Not only can a NAS device provide a vast amount of capacity (depending on how many disks you install inside it), there are also some additional benefits:
- The NAS can be placed anywhere in your home or office, providing there’s a network connection. This means that if you like to work in silence, the sound of spinning disks won’t be distracting.
- With a NAS, you can choose to share your data with other users or devices on your network. If you have a friend or colleague on your network, you can easily let them access your data. If perhaps, you’re running Plex or have a Firestick or SmartTV, you can share your TV and movie collection from your NAS, making it much easier to consume your favourite media.
Use Cases: Long term data archival
A couple of decades ago, it was quite commonplace to use CDs, and later DVDs, to distribute your data between your friends and peers. It was also fairly common to make backups of your important files onto these optical discs for safekeeping. With the increased capacities of hard drives, flash drives, and the prevalence of cloud storage, optical discs have fallen out of favour.
There’s still a place for them, however, believe it or not. Optical discs are again becoming popular as a medium to store precious data that needs to be around for decades to come. This is largely thanks to the advent of the “M-DISC”.
Traditional writeable CDs and DVDs (CD-R, DVD-R) used to boast that they could retain data for 30 years. At the time, this was seen as impressive (many users were moving to them from floppy disks which were notoriously unreliable.), however, there were soon reports that CDs and DVDs were becoming unreadable much more quickly. It seems the 30-year claim only really holds true when using expensive branded media, that’s stored in ideal conditions.
The “M-DISC” was released in 2009 and sought to challenge traditional CD-R’s/DVD-R’s on the data retention front. The manufacturers advertised that data stored on the “M-DISC” would be safe for 1000 years (hence its full name, the “Millenial Disc”).
If you have some precious family photos, for example, that you want to make sure are around for generations to come, the “M-DISC” might well be what you’re looking for. At the time of writing, the largest capacity optical disc to support the “M-DISC” format is the BDXL, capable of holding 100GB.
Use Cases: Backing up vast amounts of data
In the not too distant past, tape was the defacto standard when it came to backing up your data. Businesses across the globe would religiously load up their tape libraries each night, and unload them in the morning, satisfied in the knowledge that their precious data was safely backed up.
In more recent years, disk-based backup devices, alongside cloud storage solutions have stolen the crown in many small to medium size organisations. That’s not to say that tape doesn’t still have a place though.
The problem with tape is that the required hardware (namely the tape drives/libraries) is expensive and prone to failure if not properly maintained. The large capacity tapes are also quite expensive themselves.
If you have a vast amount of data to backup however, tape is still king. This is because, once you’ve purchased the hardware, even the expensive tapes still work out less per terabyte than hard drives do.
By way of a quick example, at the time of writing (January 2022), the latest widely available, high-capacity tape format is LTO-8 (LTO-9 is on the cusp of release but pricing is still unavailable).
The cost of an internal LTO-8 drive is around £2,500 and the cost of a single 12TB cartridge is £55. By contrast, the current price of a WD Elements 12TB External Hard Drive is £190.
At first glance, you might think “Wow, I’m not paying £2,555 to backup 12TB of data to tape! I’ll just buy an external 12TB drive for £190”. Any if all you wanted to do was backup your 12TB, once you’d be right. You could save over £2300.
Let’s imagine however that you’re a large organisation (or a next-level crazy data-hoarder!), you need to backup 12TB each and every night, and you need to keep each backup indefinitely (so you can’t reuse tapes or backup drives). Let’s see how the cost of backing up to hard drive stacks up against backing up to tape over a 30 day period:
|Tape Drive Cost (£)||2500|
|Tape Cost (£)||55|
|Hard Drive Cost (£)||190|
|Day||Backup Data Acc (TB)||Hard Drives Used Acc||Tapes Used Acc||Tape Drives Used Acc||Hard Drive Cost Acc (£)||Tape Drive + Tape Cost Acc (£)|
As you can see, even with the expense of buying a tape drive, in the scenario laid out, it becomes more cost-effective to backup to tape after just 18 days!
In this post, I’ve tried to answer the somewhat ambiguous question, “What are the best hard drive alternatives?”. I’ve tried to cover a range of different scenarios that might be making you look for alternatives to hard drive storage. We’ve covered everything from home users wanting to store more data than their current drive can hold, right through to organisations looking to backup vast amounts of data without spending a fortune on additional disks.
If you’ve asked this question yourself in the past, or are indeed still searching for alternative storage methods, please leave a comment letting me know what issue you’re facing. There are many more storage options that I haven’t even touched upon in this post as they’re so niche!