One of the most difficult issues for a computer user to tackle is the failure of a hard drive. When that failure occurs in the only drive installed within a computer, the situation becomes even more troubling. From that point forward the recovery options become limited and access to even the most thorough backups will do nothing to alleviate the lost productivity.
The best way to mitigate this loss scenario is to limit the chances of a hard drive failure by taking preventative measures. No one can ever fully reduce the chance of a drive failure to zero. Your drive will fail and its only a question of when. However, you can ensure that the drives you own last as long as they can and ensure that you receive the most value for your purchase.
There are several key categories to consider when covering the different aspects of preventing and minimizing HDD failure. Each one is as important as the previous and following categories and must be used in tandem with each other to ensure the most effective prevention results.
Common drive failure causes
The most important step to ensuring the long life of your HDD is to combat the most common causes of drive failure. This section can be broken down into three subsections that cover specific causes, environmental, electrical, and stress, and can be directly attributed to the early failure of many HDD.
- Temperature - Overheating is reported to be a major factor in the failure of HDD. It is believed that excess heat can cause the spinning platter of a mechanical drive to expand, causing the read-and-write head to impact the surface and initiate failure. The most common cause of HDD overheating is inadequate ventilation. Insure that your computer has adequate ventilation, enough fan support for air flow, and that the computer is placed in an area of your home or office with adequate air flow.
- Condensation - Any form of condensation will be a danger to electronics and not just a HDD. Condensation can occur when a computer is moved from a cool location, like outdoors, into a warm or even hot location. This can result in condensation buildup inside the computer that will cause significant damage if the computer is not allowed to dry out and may cause damage anyway. Limit all significant temperature changes for your computer to mitigate this issue.
- Air Quality - Particulates in the air, depending upon type, can cause adverse effects to a HDD. These particulates can gather with dust to create an insulating layer of sediment, which will increase the HDD's ability to trap and keep heat. To mitigate this problem, clean your computer's internal regularly if you are in a high dust area and do not smoke in the same room as your computer.
- Vibration - Powerful vibration near a computer may induce the read-and-write head to impact the platter of a mechanical drive causing a crash and damage. You can limit vibrations by locating sound-producing equipment, like speakers and subwoofers, away from your computer or by placing them on stands or towers to isolate the vibrations they create.
- Motion - The sudden movement of a computer can damage an HDD. The problem is exacerbated further if the computer is powered on. Limit this vulnerability by placing your computer in a safe and protected area where there is little to no chance of it falling over, dropped, or run into.
- Magnetic fields - Items that have a strong magnetic field, or that generate a strong magnetic field, should be kept away from your computer. Mechanical drives use magnetism to store data and any disruption of the associated magnetic storage system may cause irreparable damage.
- Power - Fluctuation in power can cause significant damage to a HDD and other computer components. The use of a surge protector is essential in protecting against power related damage. Other forms of equipment that protect against power fluctuation damage are power conditioners and uninterruptable power supplies.
- Electrostatic - The circuitry that makes up a HDD is sensitive to electrostatic fluctuations and discharges. When handling or touching the HDD, be sure to be properly grounded. If you are storing a drive outside of your computer, the drive must be stored in a antistatic bag or bubble wrap.
- Power cycling - The act of powering on or resuming operation from hibernation cycles the power to the HDD of a computer. This starts a process that spins up the drive and is believed to place more stress on the drive than normal operation. To mitigate this issue, leave your system on for as long as is safely recommended to reduce power cycling.
- Fragmentation - As a drive is used over a long period of time, the data stored within it becomes fragmented and requires more movement of the read-and-write head. To mitigate this wear and tear on your HDD, use the defragmentation program that is included with Windows systems regularly.
The prevention and mitigation of HDD failure requires an understanding of the signals that a drive gives off as it begins to wear down. Luckily, there are a number of simple programs already installed on your computer and available for download that assist in recognizing the signs of oncoming failure.
The Windows operating system comes with a handy drive tool, called CHKDSK. The program will check the integrity of the computer's file system and then provide repair options where available. A chkdsk should be run at least once every three months to ensure the proper operation of your HDD.
A drive's health can be monitored using a program, which utilizes S.M.A.R.T., or self-monitoring, analysis and reporting technology. S.M.A.R.T. uses data from your HDD to create an estimate of the drives health. The program will then make a report detailing the status of the drive tested. When the system reports that a drive is unhealthy, then that drive can be preemptively replaced.
Lastly, a computer keeps a record of activity, called events, for administrators and troubleshooters to use in order to diagnose problems. To review this data, open up the built-in Event Viewer application and look for error or events triggered by a disk or disk controller. This information will allow you to recognize ongoing issues with your HDD that may not have triggered any of the other monitoring systems.
Reducing the amount of data stored on a drive or the number of drives used by a computer can decrease the likelihood of a drive failure. The reduction of total data stored also reduces the overhead required to keep information safeguarded.
In order to reduce the amount of data stored on a computer's HDD, it is recommended to routinely cleanup unwanted or unused files. This includes removing old and unused application, programs, photos, and all other file and folder types.
Once all of your unwanted files and programs have been removed, you have the option of compressing files that are still needed but accessed infrequently. Programs, like WinZip and 7-Zip, provide easy to use interfaces and variable compression rates that allow for a decrease in HDD space used.
In order to minimize the chances that a drive will fail while in operation, it is essential to manage the drives life cycle effectively. As with all products, HDD reliability will decline with age and use. Understanding the way to manage this decline will protect your data from the eventual failure of a drive.
The first step in managing the life cycle of a drive begins with a brand new drive as it is first installed in a computer. It is commonly accepted that a new drive has a higher chance of failure during its first months of use than later in its life cycle. To combat this problem, it is suggested to use special software that performs a burn-in process to test the reliability of the drive. A burn-in will perform a read and write stress test on the drive that may create errors that can be picked up by a S.M.A.R.T. system or chkdsk. If errors are found in the first day of operation, the drive can be returned or replaced well before and data is lost to its failure.
The opposite of the burn-in test is planned obsolescence. A user or company can set certain parameters for a drive to fulfil that will indicate it is time to replace the drive. The parameters can be anything from time installed to certain S.M.A.R.T. data indicators.