Drive failures are inevitable

I generally modify my computers with new hard drives and additional RAM after purchasing them. I added RAM to my iBook and replaced the HDD in both my MacBook and MacBook Pro. I bought a 250GB Seagate drive for my MacBook back in 2008 sometime and used it inside my MacBook Pro when I bought it in December 2009. I had no problems with it during that time. I installed Boot Camp, did 200GB+ backups and it didn’t hesitate.

A few weeks ago I closed the lid on my MBP to do some other work, but when I came back to it, I got the password authentication screen and the machine stalled. I left it be for a few minutes, but clearly something was wrong after 20 minutes. Forcing a shutdown, the machine booted to the grey loading screen and no further. That told me something was definitely wrong, so I went to the MacRumors forums and posted a message about the Blank Screen of Death that has afflicted many other MBP owners. During this time I also removed the HDD from the MBP and installed it into an enclosure for use with another MacBook. When it didn’t mount, I started to get more nervous, and the obvious beeping of the drive did not help. So I admitted defeat and prepared to purchase another drive the next day, which I did.

After taking the drive into a data recovery service just for an evaluation, it turns out the drive had seized, and a repair was likely to return all my data, but at the minimum charge of $500. Since I had already rebuilt the website data I had lost and most of my applications were on my 2 week old backup, I’m going to take a pass on the repair.

This entire event has taught me a number of things that I’ll outline here.

  1. Hard drive failures are inevitable
    It really isn’t a case of if, but when. Especially in a laptop, where the fragile spinning components are tossed and turned and operated at weird angles. Be prepared.
  2. Backup regularly
    Buy an external drive, and either use Time Machine or other cloning software to create regular backups. I lost all of 1 website, most of another and a few photos from a trip. The websites I’ve since rebuilt, but if the other data had been mission critical, I could have been in big trouble.
  3. Check your backups
    I use Carbon Copy Cloner to build images of the drive and store those on my Ubuntu file server. In the process of retrieving some after replacing the drive, the image would not eject, then would not mount due to a corrupt file system. It worked out after rebooting, but was a cause for concern. Be sure to check your backups often to make sure they are updated as expected.
  4. Double check drive reliability
    I probably have more than 8 hard drives in my possession right now, and most are Western Digital. Of the drives I’ve had fail, all are of the 2.5″ variety and only 1 is WD. I believe I will be purchasing WD drives for the near future (my replacement drive is a 320GB Caviar Black). Before buying a new hard drive, especially for laptops, research reliability data for various manufacturers to see if there is more satisfaction with particular vendors.
  5. Data recovery is expensive
    My $500 is the starting price of recovery, which I received because the firm believed I was a student. Many recoveries reach far higher, due exclusively to the manner in which data is recovered. If the repair is straightforward, the cost is far lower than if it requires extensive reconstruction. If your hard drive ever dies and you need recovery, prepare the platinum card because regardless of data volume, you’ll be paying a lot.
  6. Consider drive upgrades regularly
    You have no way of knowing which drive will stop after 3 years or 8, but after this latest drive death, I will be upgrading storage every 2 years or so. Once SSDs are more cost effective, I’ll move to those (which brings their own problems) but I think the key to reliable storage is fresh media.

Data loss is no fun for anyone, but with the right safety measures in place, you can come back from the loss with minimal downtime and lost material.

One comment on “Drive failures are inevitable
  1. Brian Cain says:

    Great Post! Great pointers too. I can really appreciate the bullet points you have outlined.