CLICK! CLICK! WHIIIR! CLICK! GRIND! CLICK! GRIND…
Hopefully you don’t recognize those sounds – yet! That was the sound of a hard drive dying a a painful death. I say “yet” because at some point the hard drive in your computer will fail. To illustrate how common it is for drives to fail we can turn to our friends at Google. In 2007 Google published a study they performed on disk drive failure rates in their data centers. Before you say “Hey, it’s Google. They must use special drives and not the same stuff I use” – Think again. They use a wide variety of the same kind of disks installed in the average desktop computer. Here is what they found:
- Hard disks failed at a rate of 2.6% in the first three months.
- The failure rate during years 2-5 is between 6-8.5%.
Think about that for a minute. Even if you are being conservative that’s stating that 2 in every 100 computers sold will have a hard drive failure in the first three months! So don’t think just because you bought a new computer two months ago that you’re safe. And every year after that you have about a 7% chance of a failure occurring. So just like death and taxes, hard drives fail. And some day yours will too. Today I am going to give you a quick overview of your hard drive, some warning signs to look for, and how to prepare for the inevitable failure.
Here is a brief introduction to your hard drive and how it works. The hard disk drive, or HDD for short, is where your data (programs and other personal files, like pictures) is stored on your computer. A drive is a flat-ish, rectangular enclosure about the size of your hand. Inside are 3-5 silver discs and a little arm that moves around the disks. The easiest way to describe how a disk drive works is to use an analogy. At a very basic level a hard drive is similar to a record player. Think of the silver disks inside the drive enclosure as a record. The disks contain data like records contain songs. The data is accessed by the little arm seeking out the location of a file as the disks spin at a very high speed. This is again similar to the concept of a record spinning as the needle on the arm “reads” the song on the album groove.
But enough of the nerd speak – here is what you need to know about drive failures. Hard drives can fail in two ways: 1) physical failures and 2) “soft” failures.
Physical failures are when a physical component of the drive fails, such as the bearings for the spinning disks. The warning sign for this type of failure is generally the noises such as the ones at the start of this blog post, a pronounced clicking or grinding sound. It usually means the end is near and you need to get your data backed up IMMEDIATELY. If a physical failure occurs and you need to recover data off of the drive that was never backed up then you will pay through the nose for it. Bad drives must be sent to a specialized company that has dust-free clean rooms and guys in hazmat suits. They will remove the drives and place them into a new drive enclosure. Again this is extremely expensive.
The other type of failure is a soft failure. These occur when data is written incorrectly to the disks and becomes unreadable by the computer. The symptoms you will see can vary widely but they include files unable to be opened, missing files, programs that crash when you try to start them and even your computer hanging during the startup process. There are several geeky reasons why this could happen but I am not going to bore you with them. But the good news is that this type of error can usually be recovered from. A decent computer repair service will be able to run diagnostic/repair software that can identify the problem and attempt to fix it. It’s not always foolproof but it’s much cheaper than paying $1000s to recover a physical failure.
So how do you protect yourself from these physical or soft drive failures?
BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER ON A REGULAR SCHEDULE
Backing up your computer is the #1 thing that every computer owner needs to do. Most users don’t backup but I can’t really blame them either. If you look back at my second post the computer industry has really tried to instill this idea of the computer as an appliance and it’s not. How many people have a backup plan if their toaster fails while making toast? Computer manufacturers don’t want their products to appear faulty so they don’t talk about back up solutions with the initial product purchase. In addition the software that runs the backups has been pretty immature to this point. By immature I mean that the backup software would require intervention on the users part to initiate the backup, monitor it and ensure that a successful backup was performed. And if you ask the average user to do something as “exciting” as performing a full system backup they will skip it every time. So it’s understandable why most people don’t backup their computers. However, to keep your data safe that needs to change and backup is not the painful process it used to be.
So here is the info on hard drives you need in a nutshell:
- Hard drives are physical devices and they will eventually fail.
- Hard drives fail at a rate of about 6-8% every year after the first year of service.
- Hard drive failures come in two flavors: physical and soft.
- Physical failures are very expensive to recover from and require drives to drive to be sent away.
- Soft failures can usually be recovered by a local computer technician but there is no guarantee you will recover your data.
- Be aware of warning signs like unusual noises or files/programs not behaving normally.
- The only real way to protect your data from drive failures is backing up your computer.
So now I need to back up my computer? How the heck do I do that? What equipment do I need? What software do I use? Let’s save these questions for next week when I cover the basics of backing up your computer. As always please feel free email me with questions or leave comments here on the blog.