Data degradation

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Data degradation is the gradual corruption of computer data due to an accumulation of non-critical failures in a data storage device. The phenomenon is also known as data decay, data rot or bit rot.


Below are several digital images illustrating data degradation, all consisting of 326,272 bits. The original photo is displayed first. In the next image, a single bit was changed from 0 to 1. In the next two images, two and three bits were flipped. On Linux systems, the binary difference between files can be revealed using cmp command (e.g. cmp -b bitrot-original.jpg bitrot-1bit-changed.jpg).

Primary storages[edit]

Data degradation in dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) can occur when the electric charge of a bit in DRAM disperses, possibly altering program code or stored data. DRAM may be altered by cosmic rays[1] or other high-energy particles. Such data degradation is known as a soft error.[2] ECC memory can be used to mitigate this type of data degradation.[3]

Secondary storages[edit]

Data degradation results from the gradual decay of storage media over the course of years or longer. Causes vary by medium:

  • Solid-state media, such as EPROMs, flash memory and other solid-state drives, store data using electrical charges, which can slowly leak away due to imperfect insulation. The chip itself is not affected by this, so reprogramming it approximately once per decade prevents decay. An undamaged copy of the master data is required for the reprogramming.
  • Magnetic media, such as hard disk drives, floppy disks and magnetic tapes, may experience data decay as bits lose their magnetic orientation. Periodic refreshing by rewriting the data can alleviate this problem. In warm/humid conditions these media, especially those poorly protected against ambient air, are prone to the physical decomposition of the storage medium.[4][5]
  • Optical media, such as CD-R, DVD-R and BD-R, may experience data decay from the breakdown of the storage medium. This can be mitigated by storing discs in a dark, cool, low humidity location. "Archival quality" discs are available with an extended lifetime, but are still not permanent. However, data integrity scanning that measures the rates of various types of errors is able to predict data decay on optical media well ahead of uncorrectable data loss occurring.[6]
  • Paper media, such as punched cards and punched tape, may literally rot. Mylar punched tape is another approach that does not rely on electromagnetic stability.

Hardware failures[edit]

Most disk, disk controller and higher-level systems are subject to a slight chance of unrecoverable failure. With ever-growing disk capacities, file sizes, and increases in the amount of data stored on a disk, the likelihood of the occurrence of data decay and other forms of uncorrected and undetected data corruption increases.[7]

Low-level disk controllers typically employ error correction codes (ECC) to correct erroneous data.[8]

Higher-level software systems may be employed to mitigate the risk of such underlying failures by increasing redundancy and implementing integrity checking, error correction codes and self-repairing algorithms.[9] The ZFS file system was designed to address many of these data corruption issues.[10] The Btrfs file system also includes data protection and recovery mechanisms,[11] as does ReFS.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Invisible Neutron Threat | National Security Science Magazine". Los Alamos National Laboratory. Retrieved 2020-03-13.
  2. ^ O'Gorman, T. J.; Ross, J. M.; Taber, A. H.; Ziegler, J. F.; Muhlfeld, H. P.; Montrose, C. J.; Curtis, H. W.; Walsh, J. L. (January 1996). "Field testing for cosmic ray soft errors in semiconductor memories". IBM Journal of Research and Development. 40 (1): 41–50. doi:10.1147/rd.401.0041.
  3. ^ Single Event Upset at Ground Level, Eugene Normand, Member, IEEE, Boeing Defense & Space Group, Seattle, WA 98124-2499
  4. ^ Riss, Dan (July 1993). "Conserve O Gram (number 19/8) Preservation Of Magnetic Media" (PDF). Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: National Park Service / Department of the Interior (US). p. 2. The longevity of magnetic media is most seriously affected by processes that attack the binder resin. Moisture from the air is absorbed by the binder and reacts with the resin. The result is a gummy residue that can deposit on tape heads and cause tape layers to stick together. Reaction with moisture also can result in breaks in the long molecular chains of the binder. This weakens the physical properties of the binder and can result in a lack of adhesion to the backing. These reactions are greatly accelerated by the presence of acids. Typical sources would be the usual pollutant gases in the air, such as sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxides (NOx), which react with moist air to form acids. Though acid inhibitors are usually built into the binder layer, over time they can lose their effectiveness.
  5. ^ "Preserving magnetic media". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 3 November 2020. High temperature and humidity and fluctuations may cause the magnetic and base layers in a reel of tape to separate, or cause adjacent loops to block together. High temperatures may also weaken the magnetic signal, and ultimately de-magnetise the magnetic layer.
  6. ^ "QPxTool glossary". QPxTool. 2008-08-01. Retrieved 22 July 2020.
  7. ^ Gray, Jim; van Ingen, Catharine (December 2005). "Empirical Measurements of Disk Failure Rates and Error Rates" (PDF). Microsoft Research Technical Report MSR-TR-2005-166. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  8. ^ "ECC and Spare Blocks help to keep Kingston SSD data protected from errors". Kingston Technology Company. Retrieved 30 March 2021.
  9. ^ Salter, Jim (15 January 2014). "Bitrot and atomic COWs: Inside "next-gen" filesystems". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on 6 March 2015. Retrieved 15 January 2014.
  10. ^ Bonwick, Jeff. "ZFS: The Last Word in File Systems" (PDF). Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  11. ^ "btrfs Wiki: Features". The btrfs Project. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  12. ^ Wlodarz, Derrick (15 January 2014). "Windows Storage Spaces and ReFS: is it time to ditch RAID for good?". Betanews. Retrieved 2014-02-09.