Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Protect Your Data

As I have mentioned before, my business has kept me from keeping this blog up to date. However, recent events have given me reason to take time out to issue some advice for those of you who 'live' by the data on your computer. There's a nefarious beast out there that eats important data for lunch.

Hard Drive failure.

I'm sure just about everyone who reads this probably has experienced a hard drive failure at some point in their total computing experience. In fact, all of the major manufacturers of hard drives, Western Digital, Maxtor, Seagate, Hitachi (OEM for IBM), and others have dropped their standard consumer-level hard drive warranties from 3 years to 1 year. In the low-cost computer market, it is extremely rare to find any of the higher level IDE or SCSI drives in systems as after all, margin is king. Not that we as consumers haven't pushed this along. I myself have several 120+ GB drives that only have the 1 year warranty due to their low cost (especially after rebates).

Why the drop in warranty? Is it that the OEMs are producing shoddy equipment? Well, yes and no. Most new IDE hard disks today run at 7200 rpm (and yes, there are more accurate terms for IDE drives, such as ATAPI, ATA, etc. But the average person somewhat knows two types, IDE and SCSI, so I'm going to stick with that terminology, however incorrect). These drives generate a lot of heat and are often placed into cases that only have the minimum internal airflow capabilities. Add a few months in the standard home and a significant amount of dust (which you will find that computers eat up quicker than any ion-based air cleaner, especially the ones with larger fans), and you have a recipe for disaster. After all, there are only a few moving parts left in a computer system: The fans, the DVD/CD-ROM drive, and the Hard Drive. Of all of these the hard drive is the only 'sealed' device. However, that makes it more susceptible to heat damage. Once the dust gets in there and starts slowing down the case and CPU fans, the heat inside the case builds up, and in the summer months a hotter house causes problems. Computers find themselves being placed under desks and near the registers and duct outlets, allowing more dust in, and often being right next to the source of hot air from the furnace in the winter.

You seeing the pattern here?

Electromagnetic fields generated by computers attract dust and Heat + Dust = Hard Drive Failure.

You think the airflow is bad in your desktop system, imagine how bad it is for those faster bigger capacity 2.5" laptop drives that are used in all sorts of not-so-electronics-friendly environments. These little guys are spinning at 4500, 5400, and now even 7200 rpm inside of a very cramped space. Have the data on your laptop backed up? I hope so.

People think there's nothing on their home computer that's worth anything, or figure it wouldn't take much time to recreate everything.

I don't know. My time is money, and a well setup system is like a security blanket or good old comfortable pair of shoes. It would take me quite a while to redo everything from scratch. Whether that be my favorites list, documents and pictures that I have collected from various places would take many hours to recreate. In fact, I am composing this post on a Apple MacIntosh PowerBook G4 17" model that a client 'loaned' me so that I could experience and learn OS X. (I call it OS 'X' as in the letter 'X', not OS 10 as I am told it is "properly" pronounced, but that's another topic) Its taking a bit getting used to, but its definitely not as comfy as my main system of which I know where all my software is located, and all my resources can be found.

So, what to do?

Mirror it and back it up. In that order.

Remember how I said how inexpensive hard drives were? Cheap enough that you could afford a second identical drive to the one currently in the system quite easily. Couple that with a RAID Controller that supports RAID-1 (Mirroring), and you have instant protection from a single hard disk failure. You are NOT protected from accidental deletion, or some bad software corrupting data, as the data will be corrupted or deleted on both drives almost instantaneously. I have not had great experience with some of the on-board RAID controllers that some motherboards are equipped with, so YMMV. I have successfully used the Promise and Highpoint PCI cards in my and my clients' systems.

After you get your system RAIDed, purchase an External USB or Firewire Hard Drive (tapes are too unreliable, too expensive, and too much of a pain IMNSHO). These have come down in price, and Maxtor even makes one they call the OneTouch External Hard Drive. It comes with backup software, and with a push of a button you can backup your critical data. However, to be honest, if you have Windows 2000 or XP, (or are a tech-saavy Linux user), the built in auto-backup tools can be easily configured to copy your critical data to the external drives once a day (or more). If you have a laptop computer, where RAID is not an option, an external drive at 'home base' is a necessity.

You can buy all of the items for RAID and External Backup if you are a smart shopper for $400 or less. Not a large investment if you look at just how much your data is worth. The data if worth far more than the hardware it is on.

Treat it that way.

Update: Looks like Lileks has had some problems with the Maxtor One Touch on his Mac. While I am still learning OS X as compared to Windows or Linux, I can offer the following suggestions as to why he had problems with it:

1. The One Touch is formatted by default with the FAT32 filesystem, which has limited file size and filename length support. First thing you need to do on a Windows system is convert it to NTFS. (From the Command Prompt: convert X: /FS:NTFS where X is the drive letter of the external drive) With OS X, I would assume UFS or HFS, if there is a converstion tool. Once you do that, you won't have the filename/size limitations.

2. USB 2.0 works correctly most of the time. However, on some systems if you plug in a USB 1.1 device to your USB 2.0 Hub or port, it slows everything down on that USB channel to 1.1 speeds, which is much slower (11Mb/s) than USB 2.0 (480Mb/s).

3. Windows (NT, 2000, XP), Linux, and I believe OS X have automated backup tools built in to the OS. These tools allow for unattended monthly/daily/hourly/by-the-minute backups of your system. You really don't even need to 'touch a button'. Just setup the backup schedule and forgedaboudit. You don't even need the "One Touch" software.

I'd have left Lileks a note, but he doesn't have comments. Thanks to James over at Hell In A Handbasket for the link to the original article. He was talking about 'The Box', and I need to make one of those, but it was in the same article on Lileks' site.