Learning the hard way

Hard drive failure can happen any time, but is your back (up) covered to minimise the loss?

commentary Hard drive failure can happen any time, but is your back (up) covered to minimise the loss?

I suffered the misfortune of my notebook hard disk giving up the will to live recently. (I suspect as a general result of abuse, but the official line is that it suddenly stopped working.) Although I religiously back up all files -- every four to six months or so -- I'd forgotten how many "work in progress" documents and e-mails I'd stored locally, rather than on the network.

(In my defence, hard drive manufacturers themselves state that 1.2 to 1.5 percent of all hard drives, out of 200 million hard drives which are sold worldwide each year, will develop a fault. That translates to about 2.5 million hard drives that will develop faults yearly -- mine must be one of these.)

As hard drives increase rapidly in size... it's becoming more challenging to implement a reliable (and effective) back-up solution.
By coincidence, I also noticed a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald about a new 300GB external drive. It's becoming easy to fill 300GB with digital photos or movies, if the drive's for personal use. Similarly, corporate PowerPoint files (MS Office files generally), e-mail attachments, and multimedia presentations also fill a hard disk much quicker than a few years ago. And IP telephony is likely to further drive network storage demands as voicemail's on the PABX become WAV files on the PC. As hard drives increase rapidly in size, roughly following Moore's law, it's becoming more challenging to implement a reliable (and effective) back-up solution.

Even with a disciplined approach to back-up, there's more data to manage. In early June, Citigroup in the US said it had "lost" tapes containing personal data and loan account data on 3.9 million customers. In February of this year, the Bank of America lost data on 1.2 million customers, and in May, Time Warner lost information on 600,000 employees.

The Washington Post has estimated that more than six million people in the US alone have had personal information misplaced by, or stolen from major corporations.

HP estimates that a stolen notebook can cost a business up to AU$89,000 -- almost all in the value of lost data. A study by a leading e-mail vendor a few years go estimated that the cost from lost e-mail messages and the associated expenses (technical services, lost productivity, the value of the lost data) was more than AU$11 billion -- and that was back in 2001.

A regular back-up regime is critical -- but many corporate networks limit the allocation of network storage available to each user. Writable CDs were an effective option for personal archiving of data but the rapid growth in hard disks and the volume of information stored limits the effectiveness of these. I'm not capable of keeping my e-mail files to a size that fits on a CD for any sustained period of time. Writable DVDs offer hope, but as these start to become ubiquitous hard drives will be approaching terabyte capacity, and file sizes will have increased again.

For those disciplined enough to do back-up regularly, on CD, DVD, or tape, there's also the challenge of media integrity. Jeff Rothenberg, a senior researcher at RAND Corporation, wrote in a Scientific American article in January 1995 that "Digital data lasts forever or five years, whichever comes first". CD-R disks have been known to be unreadable within a few years. Tapes can fail, especially if they are not stored in a controlled environment.

As for my deceased drive, I've sent it to the special disk recovery doctors. Their prices make the average GP look significantly underpaid but if I get my data back, I promise to significantly increase the frequency of my back-up routine!

Oliver Descoeudres is marketing manager at network IP/Internet network infrastructure builder and solutions provider NetStar Australia. He can be contacted at marketing@netstarnetworks.com or on 02 9805 9759.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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