No Such Thing: Harddisk Warranty

A while ago the drives in my fileserver (PPC Mac Mini) began dying on me, one after one. The disks were somewhat old (approx. 4 years) so I replaced them with 2 new Maxtor 500GB USB drives, and restored all data from my backups. The server came up and looked and worked like it had never died, but now had more diskspace.

After a few months of trouble free operation, one of the Maxtor disks seemed to have died this morning. I had kept the receipt, so I thought I’d get the drive and bring it in for repairs, because after all, this is well within the warranty period. While disconnecting the drive, it occured to me that I could never bring that harddisk in for repairs, particularly if I was not able to access it.

Why? Because of the data on that disk. My iTunes library, purchased software and licenses, family pictures and taxes, everything is on there. Sure I have a backup, but what are the people in the store going to do with my data? No matter how you think about it, the disk is probably going to be checked by a store employee, and maybe later by a technician at the repair shop. Who’s to say that these people don’t steal my data?

The easiest target would be “casually copying” my music because that’s what people do nowadays without seeing any harm in it. On my disk are more than a few iTunes DRM-free tracks which can be copied off there. These tracks are not DRM-ed, but they do contain information about me purchasing them. Should these tracks be found on the internet, the problem is mine, because I can never prove that I did not put them there. Still my name is in there. This is the simplest scenario, but imagine what a clever person could do with your tax forms, or your personal foto’s, or legally bought license keys…

The whole point is, that there effectively is no such thing as harddisk warranty, because you can’t turn in your disk exactly for the reasons described above. After realizing this, the only tactics I can advise are:

  1. 8% of all harddisks die within the first 2 years of operation, according to some research done by Google on a large set of disks. Harddisks do not die because of heat or use. So the only thing you can do after you buy a harddisk, is test it by writing to all sectors, erasing, and making some partitions with useless data. You can use Disk Utility for this for example.
  2. After you’ve tested it and it prooved to be working, start using the disk normally and hope that noting happens. Backup. Backupbackup. Backup. Backup. I have absolutely no mercy for people who did not make backups. Don’t call me if you loose data because you did not have backup plan. Backups are the Airbags, seatbelts and bullrack of your computer.
  3. Start saving money for a replacement disk.
  4. When the disk dies within the warranty period, try to erase it by writing bit patterns to it with the Disk Utility. If this succeeds and you are satisfied that your data is erased to a reasonable degree, go find your receipt, go to the store and try to get it repaired.
  5. Bullet 4 is very unlikely to happen, because if you can write bits to a drive, you can use it. So, by the time you read this, the drive probably contains sensitive data, but you can’t access the drive. No way to delete data there. The only option you have now is to Slag your Drive, get the money you saved for a new one and buy a new one. Chances are that you can buy a bigger drive for the same money.
  6. Restore your backups on the new drive and start saving for your next one.
  7. Always try to use your new drive as the backup drive, and your old drive as the data drive. This gives you the advantage of your backup drive not being likely to fail, and because it is bigger, will easily hold (multiple) copies of the data stored on your data drive.

Back to my faulty drive: I connected it to my desktop Mac Mini (Intel) and it mounted, and did not seem to have any problems at all. I ran a diskcheck and listened to it for a while. No problems, nice sound. I reconnected it to the fileserver. Every sign of the problems I had earlier dissapeared. The only thing I could think of is to remove the cheap Trust USB hub because I ad USB trouble a few weeks ago, and I was suspecting that the drive access troubles could very well be caused by the cheap hub. Let’s see if that does the trick.

One other thing to remember, is that CD’s and DVD’s written on a computer will not hold their data forever, so they are too unreliable as backup media. A second harddisk is more reliable, because the magnetic information can be retrieved long after it has been written. Personally I backup to a spare harddisk daily (automatic) and every once in a while I do a manual backup to a third drive just to ease my mind.

For good measure I have an automatic off-site backup in the making, and I have a proof of concept working where I share an AFP:// share over an SSL connection, and backup into an encrypted DMG at the remote location. The owner of the remote computer can not see my data, and by only connecting with private/public keys using SSL the data is fairly safe from being stolen. The scripts need polishing, but in effect are no different than my local daily incremental rsync backup. I will always have an extra copy stored far away from my home.

Even a fire does not hurt me now, and scanning important documents becomes interesting, beause even if they get lost in a fire, you can “prove” to the insurance company that you had a policy, how much it was worth and what the insurancenumber was.

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