Introduction

No data storage device is perfect. Protecting against physical and mechanical loss should be a high priority for anyone who digitally stores valuable personal or financial information. In this series we’re going to focus on the things you can do to protect against losing data without the help of hackers.

Typically we store our data on hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs). Obviously other means exist, such as cloud storage, but we’ll have to save that for another time.

Mechanical failure

Every HDD and SSD is rated to have a certain expected life span. Manufacturers usually specify this as Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF). MTBF is essentially the statistical likelihood of a failure in a certain amount of time. A typical desktop HDD might have 1,000,000 hours MTBF (100+ years) yet only carry a 2-3 year warranty. I won’t get into the complexities of the drive failure statistics; leave it to say that the listed MTBF is unreliable.

Looking ahead, most enterprise-grade HDDs are used in some sort of RAID array. RAID arrays contain more than one physical drive to increase performance and/or protect against drive failures. The downside is that the probability of a failed disk scales up with the number of drives in the array.

The takeaway is that a drive will fail at some point. What do we do about it?

3 primary mitigation techniques; these can be used in combination with each other and other strategies.

  1. High quality drives with decent warranties. Everyone has their own opinion and strategy about which drives are best, we will discuss.
  2. Backups. While not that glamorous, keeping copies of your data is one of the best and most common ways for home users to protect data.
  3. Fault tolerance. As mentioned earlier, a redundant array of inexpensive/independent disks (RAID) is a great way to protect against a single drive failure.

Drive quality

There are essentially 2 main grades of HDDs. Desktop and enterprise. Before we get into that we need to clear the air about white label (WL) and refurbished drives.

White Label and refurbished

WL drives are usually new drives but carry no brand on the label, hence the name. Once these drives are plugged in it’s easy enough to identify the original controller/firmware manufacturer.

It’s a little dubious of a drive maker to manufacture a drive and not want to put their own name on it. Granted, there are valid reasons for a big brand name to withhold their logo, but buying a white label drive on Amazon or Newegg is a gamble. Used/refurbished drives are often sold as WL.

Some have good luck when they play the WL lottery. I’ve seen people order WL drives and receive the equivalent of a WD Black or Seagate Constellation drive. It’s the equivalent because the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) warranty will not be honored and there’s no way to be sure it’s not used or refurbished. Conversely, some WL drives are DOA.

Refurbished drives are typically drives that have seen some use in the field but were taken out of service for any number of reasons. Often a mechanical part or circuit board is the culprit; sometimes there are bad sectors or read/write errors on the platters; it’s also common for drives to be pulled from off-lease computers. So while there might be nothing wrong with a refurbished drive, chances are it has logged a few hours of use.

Cost/Benefit of Refurbs

Refurbished drives are likely to be the cheapest drives you can find. They usually cost less than half that of a comparable new drive. At this price you typically lose the direct support of the manufacturer and settle for 30-90 days of reseller warranty. A few resellers offer 1 year warranties on their drives, but chances are you’ll still pay for shipping if you ever need to make a return.

It’s best to consider storing your data as an investment; the assurance you’ll have your data tomorrow. Refurbished and WL drives are a risky proposition and a poor value despite their low price.

Next in this series we’ll talk about desktop versus enterprise HDDs.