Backing up your data Part 1 - Hard drive failure

You have been working from home for a couple of years. All of your work to date is stored on your computer, your invoices, your emails, and all of your digital camera photos. A power failure shuts your PC down unexpectedly and, when the power returns you see the message in white text on a plain black background “No drive was detected”. Oh dear, your hard drive has died. You did back up your data didn’t you?

A PC can run along happily for years and years with no signs of problems or potential hardware failure but unfortunately things can turn nasty very quickly. This is why it is very important – skip that – VITAL, that you back up your important data regularly. Think of all the files you have on your PC that are totally irreplaceable, family photos and work usually being the main items that are priceless and will make you feel physically sick should your drive go AWOL.

Getting into a good backup routine is not hard though, the one main thing to remember though is that backups can also fail. Many people feel that burning the odd CD of their files will save them from hard drive failure but there is nothing worse than getting a PC up and running with a new hard drive only to discover that the CDs you used for archiving your precious files are not that reliable and the CD cannot be read…

CDs burnt using your computer do not have an infinite life span, if stored in a slightly damp or too warm environment your precious backups can die just as easily as your hard drive, the only problem here being that you may not know your backups have died until you need them.

Let’s start at the top – understand what a hard drive is and why it can fail and you will never trust your files to one location again!

Do you remember 3.5 inch floppy disks? Those 1.44Mb little square disks that you may have used at work or at a place of learning that now lie redundant in their millions are in many ways similar to a hard drive. If you ever dropped one of these you will have seen that inside the plain plastic case was a small disk. When this was placed in the floppy drive a metal slot on the floppy was pulled to one side so that information could be read from the disk and a mechanism in the floppy drive rotated the disk so that all the information could be read.

A hard drive will contain several disks or “platters” where information is read from and written to and unlike the slow speeds of the floppy disk being read, the platters within the hard drive turn incredibly fast, most desktop hard drives spinning at 7200 rpm (revolutions per minutes) and most laptop drives spinning at 5400 rpm!

The platters can be made of many types of material but all will be coated in some form of metal oxide which gives them their orange/brown colour. To read and write information to these platters, each platter has a drive head, the end of which consists of a small electromagnet. These send small pulses of electrical current to the platter and this is basically how a hard drive works.

The platters are incredibly thin and are coated with a metal oxide which can deteriorate over time. The drive heads are very delicate constructions and with the platters spinning at such high speeds a sudden knock or jolt while a drive is operating can cause tremendous damage. Like all electrical components that have moving parts, these are subject to wear and tear and all hard drives will have a finite life span – i.e. if used enough they will one day stop working!

The bad thing about this is there is usually no way of knowing when a hard drive might decide to give up the ghost although sometimes there will be tell tale signs, so if your hard drive is doing any of the following please make sure you have backed up your data!

If your PC freezes – the mouse pointer will not move and the keyboard will not respond – this may be a sign of software conflicts or, more seriously, hard drive failure. One day one of these freezing incidents may result in the computer rebooting to the dreaded error stating that no hard drive is connected.

You may have saved files during work one day only to turn the PC on the next day and find the files are no longer there! Or you may find that recently saved files have sections missing from them or you are told they are corrupt when you try and open them.

Another sign that your hard drive may be on the way out is noise. As bearings or other parts in your drive wear to the point of near breaking you may hear grinding or excessive whirring noises in your drive. If you hear any new or unusual noises from your drive then this is a signal to ensure your backups are up-to-date!

  • Further Reading: Hard Drive Data Recovery and Backup Strategies

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