One of the computer industry's dirty little secrets is hardware failure. The few of us who work in, near, or otherwise around large computer installations take this for granted. Companies like Yahoo have people on staff that spend a lot of their time dealing with failing memory, buggy motherboards, smoked power supplies, bad disks, and overheating CPUs. Google, from what I read, doesn't even bother anymore.

But the larger world probably doesn't see this very often. Many are likely just blissfully ignorant of how fragile their precious data is until the first time disaster (or mistake) strikes. I know I was. I still remember the two hours I spent at the Commodore 64, typing in that BASIC program listing from the back of a computer magazine. It might have been "Compute" or "Byte."


Over the last two weeks I've been reminded of this fact. While back in Ohio, helping my Dad with some computer stuff I witnessed one hard disk failure. It was a Maxtor that was literally 1 month past the warranty date on the label. After being powered up, it just started to do that "I can't move my head like I used to be able" click ... click ... click thing.

He lost all the data on that disk. It was his Windows 2000 desktop. He proceeded to curse out Maxtor (it was not his first Maxtor failure in recent history) and then we installed Knoppix on the machine--after replacing the disk.

The next day (or later that same day? It's all blurry now), we turned our attention to his old Linux server. I managed to do a Bad Thing on it remotely a few months ago and it needed some help. Along the way, he stuck in the "D:" drive from the former Win2k box so we could extract the data and archive it elsewhere.

Linux wouldn't talk to it.

After a bit of head scratching, I booted the machine again and paid more attention to the boot messages. IDE errors reported trying to talk with that drive. Strike two.

Then, earlier today, I decided to figure out what was wrong with my virtually new Linux desktop at work. It had mysteriously stopped working just before my trip, so I brought it home (it's mine, not the company's--and that's a whole other story for a different day) to hack on later. I suspected the video card but was surprised to find it was one of the two 512MB sticks of DDR-3200 memory. So it's running with 512MB for now. Strangely, I have an identical spare at work as the result of an ordering mistake when I got the parts for the machine.

I can safely say that in my 20+ years of computing (and I'm not even 30 yet), I've seen everything die and almost everything die twice. And this is on equipment that's always been less than 5 years old.

Memory, disks, CD-ROM drives, floppy drives, video cards, mother boards, CPUs, fans, power supplies, monitors, disk controllers, and so on. Of course, some things fail far more often that others. Usually it's the disks, or maybe the power supply. All the others combined are much less common that either of those--at least in my experience.

This is why I no longer put data on anything fragile without an off-site backup, RAID, or BOTH. That new machine has a hardware RAID controller in it. The one above it has software RAID for all the partitions. And I just won a 3Ware 7500 card on eBay to install in my home server. And I use rsync quite a bit between machines. It's run via cron so that I don't forget.

My data's too important for this shit.

From now on, I'm no longer buying the cheap parts. Saving $12 per DIMM probably wasn't worth it. I should have gone to Crucial and got the stuff with a real warranty. At least I buy good CPUs, motherboards, and cases already. After 20 years, I'm still learning. Call me a slow learner, I guess.

Do most computers, which means "Windows" I guess, even come with backup software? I know they don't come with big fat warning labels on the box that explain how much data you could possibly loose and what sort of havoc it might cause in your life.

Should they?

If you do nothing else this new year, make sure your data is protected. Well, at least if it's important to you.

Posted by jzawodn at December 31, 2003 10:07 PM

Reader Comments
# Justin said:

RAM I find is really finicky stuff. I work trouble shooting computer problems for a fairly large corporation and it is pretty much a gut instinct now that when you have a mystery problem try and replace the RAM.

on December 31, 2003 10:23 PM
# rr said:

Backup software? Useless. Disks are so big now that the only thing that can back them up are more disks. But double the disks and you double the failures. Ugh.

What I really need is software that can figure out by what I do what it needs to save and what can easily be downloaded, installed, compiled, etc.

on December 31, 2003 11:01 PM
# Josh said:

I've been through about 10 IBM 75gig harddrives, a set of broken speakers and a new motherboard on my Dell P3-800. Sometimes the IBM drives lasted as little as a day or two.

I think my CD burner is broken now but is probably out of warranty (2000 purchase).

on January 1, 2004 12:00 AM
# Chris said: is one of the best memory testers around and it's under the GPL.
Don't forget to test machines when they are both hot and cold it can make a difference.

on January 1, 2004 12:19 AM
# Hugo said:

I use ntbackup on windows. There are other options: ghost and other pretty slick programs. But ntbackup does the job. I just copy the backup over to another hard drive. The tape drives I looked at were pretty expensive and sllooowwww, cd's are getting woefully small, and even dvds' 4.x GB isn't a whole lot any more. One of these days I think I'll just use RAID after I figure out my options for it on windows.

On *nix it's tar and ncftpput. I had a hell of a time (unsuccessfully) installing/configuring rsync - I couldn't get the authentication (ssh or user-account-based I think) to work.

As for dead parts: WD HD 1 month past warranty (lost most data), fried cpu, bad memory (caused numerous problems of all sorts), power supply finally gave out. Then there's the software issues...

Google just lets things go? They have farms of boxes, some with smoke coming out of them? :P

on January 1, 2004 12:36 AM
# Alden Bates said:

Google just has huge amounts of redundant servers and disks so if one of them dies, everything keeps working.

on January 1, 2004 01:01 AM
# Chandrashekhar Bhosle said:

obligatory linus quote.

"Only wimps use tape backup: real men just upload their important stuff on ftp, and let the rest of the world mirror it."

on January 1, 2004 01:46 AM
# Hugo said:

Anybody know if dvd's are less fragile than cd's? I've heard that cdr's deteriorate over time, plus they're alarmingly easy to destroy - one paperclip scratch to either side, especially the easily-flakable top reflective layer (the side you write labels on).

on January 1, 2004 02:19 AM
# gabe said:

First of all, go to these people to get your dad's drive fixed. It'll probably cost a few hundred bucks, but he'll get his data back.

Secondly, I've experienced random hardware failures and glitches mostly in the powerbooks and ibooks I've owned. But I've always had the warranty to get them fixed too. Actually, now that I think about it, I've had about 5 or 6 hard drive failures in the past 10 years or so, and maybe only one RAM module failure. Not bad.

I've still got an Apple Quadra 700 (25MHz 68040, 20MB RAM) that's still kicking. Granted, it is utterly useless. I installed NetBSD on it, and it took around 1-2 minutes to negotiate an ssh connection to the machine. It's hard drive died after 4 or 5 years of use, and other than that, it's been working fine for 13 years now.

on January 1, 2004 08:17 AM
# Mark said:

I just finished upgrading my one of my desktops. I have learnt from the last 4 years of experience as a tech that cheap memory is exactly I never buy any RAM for my own computers that is not Crucial or Micron, (I edge towards Crucial) and I try to stay away from Maxtor drives. IBM drives served me well in the past and now WD drives are what I use mostly. I ran into another weird snag while upgrading the hard drive. The theoretical size limit for FAT32 is something in the order of terabytes according to MSoft, but when I tried to copy my 40GB (FAT32) drive to a 160GB (using WDs own clone program, tried ghostpe as well) I kept getting a weird allocation error around the 120GB mark. There seems to be a practical limit of 120GB for FAT32 that SOME drives have. Once I converted to NTFS, everything went smoothly.

on January 1, 2004 10:35 AM
# Charles said:

Since the time I built my first computer from a kit in 1975, I've had exactly ONE hardware failure. My neighbor decided to fire up a table-saw using a cheater plug, it put a huge surge through my Mac IIcx, frying my expensive RasterOps 24 bit video card. I swapped it out and the CPU was fine. Ironically, the Quantum 40Mb drive in that machine was recalled due to stiction problems, Apple replaced it under an extended warranty even though it was 18 months out of warranty.
Maybe I lead a charmed life. Or maybe it's because I never owned cheap piece o'crap Wintel hardware.

on January 1, 2004 11:41 AM
# Joseph Scott said:

During the summer of 2003 I had a drive at work die. It didn't cause any immediate problems because it was only one drive in a raid5 array. The hot spare kicked in an everything was great. The real killer to this story, according to the logs the drive failed about 2.5 hours after the warranty ended.

on January 1, 2004 01:50 PM
# Joe said:

How much do you charge your Dad for tech support? :P

on January 1, 2004 09:30 PM
# Bill Trost said:

I had a most interesting hardware failure about 10 years ago -- my Sun 3 refused to boot, whining about keyboard errors. I kept poking around at the ROM monitor, trying to see if something changed. Finally, I discovered that the keyboard cable wasn' fully plugged in -- but plugged in enough that I could type at the ROM monitor! Weird...

on January 1, 2004 10:33 PM
# Chris said:

I've learned from hard experience not to buy Maxtor drives and to avoid IBM drives especially in the 60GXP and 75GXP series. At home I've gone through three of each, at work they're often the ones that die outside of Quantom drives.

I've actually had the most luck with Western Digital. Yet to have a single drive die and I still have about ten of the old 2Gb ones running in a few boxes. I love their 8Mb drives and the fact that they're one of the few companies still offering 3yr warrenties on them is just nice.

Agree with the buying name brand parts though. It just doesn't save you any money to buy the cheap stuff, even though your paying $15 less. In the end, it all evens out.

on January 2, 2004 10:09 AM
# Hugo said:

You can get a "write-every-dvd-format" external drive for under $200. Hmmm...

on January 2, 2004 12:34 PM
# Mike Hillyer said:

Ok, you want a horror story? We had a client who needed a MySQL server and who was simultaneously a cheap bastard. We wound up putting in an Adaptec 2400a IDE RAID card (which I would reccomend), and four Maxtor hard drives (which I will never reccomend). 8 months later we had 3 drives fail in a RAID 5 array before the hot spare could even come online. Never again will I use Maxtor drives for anything.

Got into the customer's site at 5 pm and left at 9 am the next morning after waiting for the new array to rebuild and the tape backup to restore.

Of course, it may be time to get around to writing that article about failover clusters on Windows.

on January 2, 2004 06:37 PM
# Tom said:

I wouldn't blame Maxtor...

on January 2, 2004 07:19 PM
# Mike Hillyer said:

Ok Tom, if I didn't think you had crossed the line to stupid before I know you have now. If you are going to bash MySQL stick to logical arguments and don't insinuate that MySQL crashed three drives, that's just plain stupid.

(Apologies to Jeremy for ranting in his blog)

on January 4, 2004 12:05 PM
# Tom said:

Mike Hillyer said: MySQL crashed three drives

on January 4, 2004 12:44 PM
# Beowoulfe said:

I have owned more Maxtor HDs than I can remember. I currently have a 40gig and a 30gig in my machine, I always run dual HDs. My wife has a 120gig and a 30 gig in hers, having learned from me on that, my son's machine has a 30 gig, I have 2 850megs and several others. All Maxtors. I have yet to have one fail. One of the 850s had a internal controller partially fail several years ago, I put it in as a D drive and ran it for several years more. None of these drives have every failed me.

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