Lessons Learned from a Hard Drive Failure

If there’s anything you can guarantee in life, one of them would be hard drive failure. The good news is that in the future, hard drive failures will become less and less likely once solid state drives become larger and cheaper (like the ones in your iPod or the pricier MacBook Air—if your friend has one, ask them if it’s the solid state drive model and watch them squirm and cringe). Unfortunately, that’s about a good decade away. Until then you can count on disk failures happening sooner or later.

Some Risk Factors and Signs

  1. Do you carry your laptop around a lot?
  2. Are you a heavy torrent user?
  3. Did you buy a cheap hard drive?
  4. Do you notice funny sounds coming out of your computer?
  5. Computer suddenly slows down or acts erratic.

Obviously, carrying around your computer a lot is a risk factor. Especially if it involves a lot of walking. People don’t realize that the hard drive is probably the most delicate part of most existing laptops today. The reason why Apple can market Nike+ and people can wear their ipods on their workout wear is because without hard drives with read/write heads, the only danger ipods need to be protected from is sweat. It’s why you can jog with your ipod and not miss a beat. So yes, those little shocks add up in terms of risk. It’s just that most people will buy a new computer before the mileage adds up.

Another risk factor is torrent use. Downloading torrents involves a lot of read/write operations in large volumes that ultimately adds up and may even spell doom. Yes, it is true. All those high definition downloads might come back to bite you.

Aside from that, don’t be overly optimistic if you notice your computer making funny noises. These noises are at most mildly irritating but in reality are very grave warning signs that something is gravely wrong.

So yeah, I basically ignored all of the above. The joke was on me. Oh yeah, and one more thing:

Don’t force shutdown your computer unless you absolutely have to.

My hard drive, may it rest in peace, in retrospect was probably a lemon the day I got it because read/write was rather a loud affair. In its final days you could practically hear it crunching. I was well aware of the risks I was running not taking advantage of the TimeMachine feature that Apple was kind enough to build into Leopard because to be honest, I managed to fill all available hard drives, including external storage, up to the brim. Such is life. On the fateful day of its untimely demise, the mac was acting up and I force shut down the computer a couple times only to find it would respond no more.

You can protect yourself from total disaster in the event of such a failure by basically backing up frequently and to an external source. Of course, most of us come to this conclusion only after a massive hard drive failure. Fortunately, most of the stuff that mattered was backed up good.

Things that Saved the Day:

  1. I kept my old hard drive exactly as it was (this also helps while you wait for a new hard drive to arrive)
  2. I had a .mac account.
  3. I used Flickr and uploaded all my photos
  4. I used version control (Subversion) for my code and various docs.
  5. I had an ipod synced up with all my music.

Web services are great because they more or less follow all the best practices when it comes to backing up data. My flickr account ensured that getting my photos back was only a download away. My .mac account ensured that my contacts, mail settings, calendar and even application settings (starting with Leopard) were backed up.

The only thing missing right now is a good, fast, reliable remote backup. There are many cheap hosting services but despite all the crazy promises of unlimited space, many of the explicitly forbid you from using it as an external backup. Maybe if I was rich I’d seriously rent a dedicated server but that’s not going to happen any time soon. Hopefully, someone will address this issue sooner or later because if something like hurricane Katrina comes along, I’ll lose my mac and its backup.