Expecting the worst

Being a little paranoid about your data's safety pays off in the long run, so assume the worst will happen and prepare for it.

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By  Jason Saundalkar Published  February 11, 2008

A recent meeting with a close friend gave me something of a startling insight into a novices' perception of data storage.

On my recommendation some time last year, she went out and bought an external USB hard drive to back-up her documents, tunes and other important data. When I talked to her recently, she reported that everything was shipshape so far but then came the surprising bit; when I asked if she had backed up her USB hard drive recently, she looked perplexed and replied "No". That's a recipe for disaster for sure.

You see she'd assumed that since she had purchased a ‘back-up drive', short of a natural disaster or physical damage to the drive, her data was now safe for the foreseeable future. This kind of assumption is, I suspect, a common one. But that doesn't make it any the less wrong.

It's easy to see why she'd think this. The drive's packaging did, after all, feature text that read ‘back-up your data' and there wasn't a very visible warning, in plain English, that it could fail.

So you can imagine how surprised she was when I advised her that, like her laptop's hard drive, her back-up drive also used a hard disk, which could also fail.

Having since talked to a number of other friends, I've discovered that most of them are under the impression that back-up solutions, such as my friend's USB drive, don't and won't fail. (Whilst there are other, more reliable, external back-up solutions on the market, such as DLT tape, these are generally too pricey and impractical for home users.

To be fair to storage manufacturers, they generally do quote a Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) number on the box of a retail packed drive, regardless of whether it's internal or external. This tells you approximately how much reliable run time (in hours) you can expect from a drive. Unless you're a well learned techie user however, you aren't going to know to look for this on the box. And even if you see it, you're probably not going to know what it means as manufacturers don't actually spell it out for you. (It's worth noting that MTBF numbers are only really guidelines; a drive could fail just a day after you've unpacked it.)

To my mind manufacturers need to clearly define the MTBF (i.e. present and explain this information in plain English) and make it easily visible on a drive's packaging. The second thing I suggest is that they make users aware of the fact that even a back-up drive can fail; not on their corporate website but on the box of the drive itself.

You see, a little paranoia is definitely warranted. I, for instance, expect my drive will fail everyday, even if it's brand new, and thus I always store multiple copies of important data.

You should segment your data into two batches of files and folders: absolutely critical, and everything else. In my case, ‘everything else' is data I can afford to lose whereas critical data consists of important data like my most prized photos, my Outlook e-mail files, investment Excel sheets etc. I store the critical data on multiple hard drives and even on optical discs for maximum safety. (You see the probability of one drive failing is high but the chance of several different storage technologies going for a walk all at once is a much lower number that I can live with.)

While on the topic of optical media, I should also point out that this very popular storage technology isn't fail-proof either. A scratch, a little bit of warping or even temperature extremes can make any form of optical media (DVD, CD, HD DVD and/or Blu-ray discs) unreadable. So if you've got critical data on optical discs as well, I'd recommend you seriously consider making multiple copies of these files. Sure it'll cost you, but then critical data is generally more valuable than the cost of being extra vigilant.

Yes, in an ideal world, storage devices would only fail if they were physically damaged. Unfortunately however, storage technology hasn't yet reached this stage and any number of a million potential factors can ruin the drives or the media your data is on. The only thing you can do is assume the worst will happen and prepare for it, so that you're never caught out when disaster does strike.

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