Is your hard drive working properly? Is it likely to fail? What would you do if it did?

A hard drive melting and going down a drainHard drive manufacturers used to rate the reliability of their drives in terms of a number of hours “MTBF” (mean time between failures). This was supposed to tell you how long you could reasonably expect a drive to last before a problem is likely, on average, to occur. It seems they don’t do this any more and I haven’t found out whether it’s because the figure was misleading or meaningless. Certainly, a study by Carnegie Mellon University found that users change their drives 15 times more often than the manufacturers would think they should.

I have seen various figures that suggest that, in practice, the reliability of drives starts to plummet at anywhere between five and seven years. All of this is irrelevant, really. The only important, irrefutable, fact is that drives DO fail. Given that fact, does it really make any difference whether there is a 1% chance or a 20% chance that your drive will fail in the next year? I’m by no means the only person to have known drives fail within their first year of life. The fact that such a drive would still be under warranty is not the point. The value is in the contents – your Windows installation, the programs, and the data. The best computer advice I can offer is that you assume that any drive can fail at any time.

So how do you know if a drive is failing?

Under normal circumstances, you may not know. However, there are two very definite signs that might be present – alone or together – that clearly indicate that something is going wrong:

  • An increasing number of errors, freezes, and program crashes may be caused by a failing drive. Such problems could be caused by disc drive read/write errors or by many others causes. It’s definitely worth heeding the warning and making sure your important data is backed up. You can then investigate further, knowing that you’ve protected the most valuable part of your computer system – your data.
  • A clicking noise coming from the drive. Act immediately. The drive could fail at any time. If there’s any data on the drive that you don’t want to lose, back it up NOW. If you’re not sure whether what you can hear is serious, visit this link and listen to some death rattles of failing drives. Be warned, though, that if your drive is starting to fail it could go at any time, so backing up data is a better use of its dying moments than having it clicking away in the background while you decide which of the sounds on the above link is the best match.


Monitoring a Healthy Drive

Most drives have something called S.M.A.R.T. technology built in so that appropriate software can monitor the health of your drive. The software that I use on my own machines for this purpose – and when providing computer support for clients – is called Active@ Hard Disk Monitor Free. This keeps a constant check on many of the parameters that indicate the health of your drive. It also has a temperature gauge to warn you if the drive is overheating. The only real limitation of the software is that it can only monitor internal hard drives. You can’t use it to monitor the health of, for instance, your USB-connected external backup drive. Nevertheless, I consider this a useful computer support tool that can give valuable warning of problems ahead.

Replacing a Hard Drive

If your drive has failed and Windows won’t start then you need to take a deep breath. There are specialist data recovery companies who may be able to get some or all of your data back but the cost could run into four figures. You may need or choose to buy a new drive and re-install everything from scratch, re-loading any data backups that you do have or that recovery specialists have been able to rescue. You may or may not feel confident to do this yourself: this is the type of computer support that people such as I, myself, offer. Don’t necessarily jump to the wrong conclusion, though. If you’ve just turned on your computer and Windows won’t load then there could be a reason other than hard drive failure, so there could be less drastic and less expensive options.

If your drive does need replacing, but is working reliably at the moment, then the best plan is probably to employ software such as Paragon Partition Manager to clone the entire drive. This is not entirely risk-free. I’ve known such software completely trash the contents of a hard drive partition by making a simple error when creating the clone. My own strategy when using it is to back up important data by a different means first, and then to use the cloning software. This is much, much, quicker than installing Windows, programs, and data from scratch. It has to be said, though, that this kind of task is not for the faint-hearted and may be beyond the technical knowledge of the average reader of this blog. Nevertheless, I hope it’s useful to point out the kind of options you may have if you suspect that your hard drive may be going on the fritz.

To sum up, the best single piece of advice I can give on this subject is this – don’t ignore the signs of a failing drive. You might be able to prevent a problem from becoming a disaster if you heed the warnings and act immediately.

Notice the rather ominous “1” in the title. This is a subject that will take more than one blog post. So, today let’s just think about what “backups” mean and what they don’t mean.

When I asked Google to define “backup” the first offering was

an accumulation caused by clogging or a stoppage; “a traffic backup on the main street”; “he discovered a backup in the toilet”

You’ll be pleased to learn that that’s not what we mean here. A better definition (offered by Wikipaedia) …

In information technology, a backup or the process of backing up refers to making copies of data so that these additional copies may be used to restore the original after a data loss event. These additional copies are typically called “backups. …”

3.5 inch External Drive

3.5 inch External Drive

So at its simplest, a backup is a copy that can be used to replace an original if it is lost, deleted, damaged. This backup can be a copy of a single file (eg an important spreadsheet) or many files. At its simplest, a backup can reside on the same drive as the original. The problem is that if the entire drive fails then the backup is also lost. Having a backup on an external drive is a much better idea but that still wouldn’t avail you if all your computer stuff was stolen or in the event of flood or fire. The only way to be really sure that the backup will be there if you need it is to keep a backup in a location physically separated from the original. In practice, I’ve only ever very rarely managed to train my clients to such a degree!
 
What a Backup Isn’t

A backup is not usually a copy of any of the myriad files that make up the Windows (or Mac) operating system, nor a copy of the files that make up the programs on your computer (eg Microsoft Office, Photoshop). If we suspect that something has gone wrong with Windows or with a program file then the best thing to do usually is to un-install the program and re-install it. In other words, we don’t just copy back files that are in a backup, but set in motion the process of removing the program completely in the proper way and then putting it back from scratch from the original master CD/DVD or downloaded file. The reason for this is that program files have to be copied and set up so that they work in the specific situation and in concert with the other programs and operating system. Copying files is not enough to achieve this so we don’t back up program files.

What Data should be backed up?

Your own stuff. The documents and spreadsheets and pictures and videos and all the other stuff that is YOURS and that you would not want to lose.

There are also other types of file that are not quite so easily imaginable as data but which you wouldn’t want to lose – eg that huge list of bookmarks (also known as favorites (sic)) that you build up in your web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera or whichever browser you use). That list of websites is nothing more than that – a list – but I’ve seen a lot of clients looking very deflated when they realise they’ve lost it.

2.5 inch External Drive

2.5 inch External Drive

A hugely important part of backup data can be your email data. This is the email messages themselves, but can also be your contact information. If you only send, view, and receive your data through a web browser then your email data is not being stored on your own computer but on the computers of the service providers. This covers services such as Hotmail, Gmail, AOL mail, Yahoo, and others. This is known as webmail.

 

If, however, you access your email through a program on your computer (such as Windows Live Mail, Outlook, Outlook Express) then your email data is stored on your own computer. Your email provider may have a copy of your recent email history on their own computers (also known as mail servers) but it could be as little as the last seven days worth of data. Don’t rely on your mail servers as email data backups.

It’s also true that webmail can usually be accessed and downloaded with programs such as Outlook (as in the paragraph above), but we don’t need to split hairs about that now.

Having established an idea of what it is that we want to back up, let’s just finish this definition of what a backup is by considering some similar ideas:

An archive – in computer terms, an archive is just a backup but with one important difference. It is never over-written. Suppose you back up your data to an external hard drive. That drive is going to get full and you may wish to delete older backups to make room for newer ones. That means that you can’t always rely on your backups to tell you exactly what your accounts data (for instance) looked like on 23rd April 2009 (for instance). So, we often create archives in the knowledge that whatever happens we can see the data as it looked at a particular time in the past. Archives can be created in exactly the same way as a backup or by a different method. Often, for instance, archives are created on CDs or DVDs, whereas backups are made on external hard drives or USB pen drives (also known as thumb drives or memory sticks. A Memory Stick is actually a proprietary Sony device, so it is a misnomer to describe a generic USB pen drive as such).

 

An image – when we’re talking about backups an image is not a photograph. It’s a different meaning of the word and what it means is a complete, thorough, 100%, copy of EVERYTHING that is on your hard drive (or a sub-division of a hard drive such as a partition). An image can only be created using special software but it does seem to contradict what I said earlier about not being able to back up programs because a complete total image of your drive can actually be used to restore your computer to exactly what it looked like at the time the image was made – operating system, programs, data, the whole lot. But it’s not the panacea it sounds like because restoring an image could result in losing all the changes to the data that happened after the image was created.

Pen Drive

Pen Drive

A clone – similar to an image, a clone is the entire copying of one drive (or partition) to another similar drive so that it can be swapped with the original in case of disaster. The problem with images and clones is that they can take a while to create, you can only be completely certain they’ve worked by installing them, and they don’t change as data is added or changed.

 

That’s an introduction to backups. The next blog on this subject will look at the actual creating of backups in more detail.

One final word: I implore you to keep your master program discs all in one place and know where that place is. I would include in that any data backups and archives on “loose” media such as CDs or DVDs. So many times in the past I have been summoned by a distraught client with an apparent disaster on their hands who needs programs (and maybe data) to be re-installed but they can’t find their discs. This is already a fraught situation. It just makes it more stressful and more expensive if the client can’t find the discs. This doesn’t need to get complicated: just put everything in the same box and know where that box is.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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