Windows XP/Drive Failure

A hard drive with important data on it should be treated like a firearm, a helicopter, or a race car engine: if it starts doing anything out of the ordinary, you should find out what's going on, and why-- quickly. Hard drives have gotten quieter, which is pleasant, but not necessarily helpful. "Odd noises" from a hard drive, particularly noises the drive has "never made before" when things haven't changed much, are usually bad signs; so are a few other things, listed below.

Three caveats, however. First, some of these symptoms can be signs of virus or other malicious code. Run virus scanners frequently! Second, poor performance that follows a software or hardware change may be related to that change-- though hard drives have occasionally been known to fail after being banged around during a case change, or after a power supply change. Finally, while users of normal IDE, SATA, and SCSI drives generally don't have to worry about this, RAID users need to watch out for possible driver bugs (and if you think you find one, check the discussion groups for your RAID card/motherboard before upgrading). Those said, here is the list.

Failure is imminent for drives which:

  • Take a very long time to spin up on power-on, or frequently do not spin up at all. This is particularly common with 2.5" (laptop) hard drives, which have comparatively weaker spindle motors.
  • Take a very long time to access certain areas of the disk; this is particularly worrisome if that area is the file allocation table (FAT) on FAT32 drives.
  • Otherwise have periods of inaccessibility exceeding several seconds, even when the machine is largely idle.
  • Never turn off their drive activity LEDs-- but used to, and nothing else has changed.
  • A hard to track down random computer freeze for up to several minutes at a time, often ending with a pop-up message saying it was unable to write to $MSFT.

Be extremely wary of drives which:

  • Change noticeably in audible pitch while running (excluding spindown for suspend, power off, etc.); you are hearing the spindle motor rate change, which is not good. If this corresponds with a period of drive inaccessibility, back up and replace the drive immediately.
  • Develop bad sectors. Modern hard drives do not have this problem; the media may be oxidizing or otherwise degrading.

Additionally, be wary of drives which:

  • Have ever been physically dropped onto a hard surface at any point, in any orientation-- running or not.
  • Have ever overheated (failed to operate properly, and then you realized the cooling fans were off, etc.)-- even once.
  • Have ever experienced a significant brownout.
  • Have ever experienced a significant power spike.
  • Seem to be running very hot.

Be somewhat wary of drives which:

  • Have had their physical mounting orientation changed (flat to side-mount, for example) well into their run life (say, after a year or so).
  • Have been rough-handled in shipping (but were properly packed in foam, etc.).
  • Have exceeded 50% of their warranty period and are being used in a RAID-0 stripe set under high demand.
  • Are operating or have operated continuously in a high humidity or marine environment.
  • Are exposed to strong vibration, such as automotive, marine, and aircraft applications.

Drives which seem to be heading for doorstop duty should be backed up and replaced as soon as possible. Drives in a RAID-5 array can usually be left in service until they actually get disqualified by the controller or operating system, assuming you have a hot spare. However, if you have no choice but to live with a drive that is on its way out for a while, and cannot back it up immediately, following these guidelines:

  • Do not use the drive any more than absolutely necessary.
  • If at all possible, do not use the drive to host the swapfile.
  • Try to avoid writing to the drive more than necessary.
  • Do not defragment the drive. This will stress the actuator or voice coil assembly. Additionally, if the drive is having write problems, this will effectively destroy otherwise readable data.
  • Do not power-cycle (turn off and on) the drive any more than absolutely necessary-- doing so places a lot of stress on the spindle motor. This usually means leaving the computer on all the time. Note that modern drives are designed to be power-cycled all the time; this is only a concern for drives which are already failing, or suspected of starting to fail.
  • Shut off automatic spin-down in Power Saving options, for the same reason.

These are just tips to help you limp home. Treat the drive as a spare tire. Hard drives never "kind of" work-- if one is starting to fail, you must replace it, or it is not a question of if you will lose the data on it, just when.

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