Your hard drive is spinning rust


By Matt Bentley

As I write this on my 10″ laptop, my desktop computer is currently packing a sad.

The hard drive suddenly failed to write a few things to disk, and as it rebooted I saw the all-too-familiar screed of errors indicating imminent failure or data loss.

I immediately stopped and took time to backup my existing data to an external drive before more damage occurred, but it was too late for some of it.

The fact that I didn’t have all of my data regularly backed-up speaks volumes; I regularly prompt clients to back up their data. Why? Because hard drives have lifespans and you don’t know how long they are.

Sometimes referred to in the tech industry as ‘spinning rust’ hard drives, magnetic hard drives have been the main storage devices inside modern computers for three decades. They work well, last a reasonably long time and are relatively reliable. But even so, 10% of all hard drives fail within the first three years of use, 20% within the first four years, while most fail after six years of use (source: Backblaze, an online data warehouse).

For some it seems inconceivable that these devices which we rely upon so much could spontaneously decide to die.

But they do, and so you need to have your data in more than one place, ideally at all times. When I say data, I mean whatever documents, photos etc that you have which are not stored online in some form, and that you would be at a loss without.

The simplest solution is to buy an external drive (either a USB thumb drive or something a little larger depending on how much data you’ve got) and copy your important data to that. You can do that manually, or most operating systems (e.g. Windows or MacOS) have built-in backup solutions which work pretty effectively.

You might think that a new storage mechanism will come along and solve this problem indefinitely. Unfortunately not: solid state hard drives, for example, are quicker but less reliable. The closest we’ve come to that goal is tape, but tape drives are expensive, and uncommon as a result. An external drive that is not plugged into the computer for most of the time will have a pretty good lifespan, provided you don’t drop it or decide to feed it ice cream someday. I have hard drives which are still going after 10 years – but they are the minority.

There’s also some concept that with the internet ‘your data is forever’ and so we can stop worrying about losing things. That’s not really true; the lifetime of your data online is the lifetime of the company which stores it. And if there’s anything which the early 2000s dot-com crash taught us it is that no online company is insoluble. So don’t rely on Facebook being around in 15 years time to store your photos.

If there’s something important to you, in the physical world as well as the virtual world, you need to take care of it. The procedure for doing that in the virtual world is to create copies. I’m not sure how well that works in the physical world, but I’ll get back to you once the prototype cloning machine in my shed gets council permission.

* Matt Bentley is the computer repair expert with Waikato Home PC Support. He has 20 years experience in computer hardware and software and his services include virus removal, PC optimisation, inspection and repair.

Matt writes a semi-regular column for Tamahere Forum on computer matters. Check out his website here for contact details.

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