Back Up Hard Drive Life Span

I have an external 500 gig Hard Drive that I turn on only 2 times a month to back up my music and photos. How long can I trust it to safely store my stuff?

You can never completely trust it, although it should last longer than one that is constantly running. If you’re making a backup copy of what is on the computer’s drive, all you have to worry about is both failing simultaneously, which is far less likely than one failing individually.

You can’t trust it, it a mechanical device it can fail at any time. Having said that, three years is about as long as you’d want to use it before replacing it. If the data is vital you want several copies, I put my photos and tax records (encrypted) on an external drive and copy them to a secure directory on my website. I also copy the files to DVD, but I’m paranoid. I had a drive fail after two months and spend several days recovering the important data I don’t want to have to do that again. DVD media is cheap and is a little safer that a hard drive.

And don’t cheap out on the media. Get archival quality discs. I bought some no-name cheapies that I used to use for backups and for burning audio CDs. One day I noticed that my audio CD’s were starting to click and pop, so I checked my backup discs - and many of them were unreadable. I actually lost some older company files and had no way to recover them. I’d say the cheap discs lasted about 5 years before crapping out.

If you’re planning on using it only as a backup and never as a single location for unique file storage, the answer is that no one knows.
However, in such a scenario, my personal experiences lead me to believe you’ll get at least 5 years out of it, perhaps much longer.
If you move it around a whole lot and expose it to excessive g forces, the lifespan may be measured in months.

Random reference point: GE makes a product that has internal IDE hard disks under constant load. There is no way to back up all the data on these devices at once, and losing the data on them is usually harmless but occasionally somewhat tragic. GE reccomends replacing the drives every 2 years.

Really? My Emac is more than three years old, I’ve used it daily, and I don’t think it’s possible to replace the internal hard drive. Would it be any different (its lifetime) than an external? All my computers have been kept for more than three years; when I was a kid I always used hand-me-downs. Have I just been lucky?

Incidentally though, I just got an external drive for backups and extra space.

When drives die before 3 years, it’s bad luck.
When they die after 3 years, it’s of old age.
If we dug up some stats on drive failure, you’d see that the failure curve starts going up around 3 years.
3 years is where you start to worry.
It’s like having a large car with an automatic transmission and 130,000 miles. The transmission might go for another 130,000 or it might go out in 5,000. You just never know.

Incidentally, the 3 years number is really only worth crap when your drive is in standard workstation duty. If it’s only operated once per month or is hit once every 2 seconds in a server application, don’t pay attention to the 3 year rule.

It’s a complete uncertainty with regards to this situation.
If the drive was on permanantly then you could figure if it passed the bell-curve for initial point of failure you were home and dry for the same approximate longevity as your internal hard drive.
As it stands you only power the little fella on once in blue moon and hope for the best.
At that rate the power supply will die before the HD and given the constant evolution of external hard drives that power supply will be obsolete when a replacement is required.
If you have that high volume of data that is invaluable to you then invest in an LTO or DD4 DAT system.

LTO 3 will get you 800 GB on a tape cassette the size of three stacked IOMEGA zip disks
Duration is 20 years.

The DD4 will store up to 72GB a piece for the same duration however the cassettes are much cheaper.

Only downside is the expense of buying the tape drives to start with.

If you intend to always have a computer and constantly upgrade to a newer computer then your current plan has merit. As you will be using the external to migrate valued data to the new machine. Likewise if the external dies the newer machine can replenish the replacement external. As a means of storing your past glories forever the external is a bad idea.

Block-burn a whole bunch of DVDs in duplicate and hope for the best.

I just put two WD HDs into a Linksys Network Attached Storage device and configured them as RAID1. It’s plugged into a UPS, so save direct lightning strike it should be physically safe. Our whole business is now on there, backups and all. Assuming no thievery, and assuming that when one drive dies they’ll both get replaced with more modern/larger drives, we’re actually feeling smugly safe.

…or should we?

You got to consider all the risks. How valuable is the data, what would happen to the business if it was lost or compromised, how long data is required to be kept by the tax people or any other regulatory authority, and how difficult it is reinstate lost data.

You can lose data in many ways: hardware failure, theft, fire, flood (from a burst pipe to call Noah), sabotage, or computer stupidity (luser formats everything).

The only way to counter these threats is to have multiple off-site storage of your data, with the type and frequency of your backups matching the worth of your data and the risk you’re will to accept.

I think the point is that most hard drives will live more than 3 years before failure but you can’t depend on that if it is a critical backup drive. You have to be very conservative.

If it is a critical back up then get two drives. The 3 year number is just something that someone pulled out of a hat.

Don’t trust RAID.
I see RAID drives hosed up and unrecoverable every other day at work.
I’m not quite sure how it happens, but happen it does.
Granted, I support metric tons of RAID-based systems, but if my business depended on it, I would not trust RAID in the absence of other backups.
You need to back it up to another location periodically.
What happens if the building gets destroyed?
Plan for that too.

You just have to pull some number out of your hat because there is no one left to go off of. Even the drive manufacturers estimated life performances such as 50 years for example have nothing to do with one drive in your computer the whole time. They assume that you swap out the same model very often and you will get a failure in 50 years. That isn’t reliable.

If you want to go practical, I have an external hard drive in off-site storage, a local one that does a nightly backup, and which is the sweetest angel to grace this planet. $4.95 a month gives absolutely unlimited backup to the web and web restore at any time from anywhere. The only problem is that 45 gb took about 5 days to backup although downloads are many times more efficient. The uploads run in background anyway. Use it and I believe it is free if you need less than 18gb or so of critical files.

Usually, the amount of backup data you actually have to store is a fraction of the data on the drive. Most of the data people typically have is of the following categories:

  • Stuff downloaded from the internet (movies, MP3s, whatever). Easily recoverable.
  • Applications, which can be recovered by re-installing.
  • Non-critical data which changes very slowly (old archives of stuff, old reports, etc.)
  • Critical stuff which changes very slowly (family photos, videos of the kids, tax receipts, etc).
  • Fairly critical stuff that changes often (e-mail, for example)

The correct way to protect all this is to separate out the data from the apps, ideally by creating a data-only drive. There are several benefits to this - a big one is that if the operating system becomes unstable, you can reformat the application drive or partition without touching your data. Set up your OS so that your data folders are on a separate partition.

Now, go buy some expensive archival quality DVDs, and back up your critical, non-replaceable data. If you separate out all the wheat from the chaff, you may find this is a surprisingly small amount of stuff. If it’s a couple of hundred gigabytes, well, you’re in for a day of backing up 50 DVDs. (this assumes you don’t have higher-capacity backup). But you should only have to do this once. Use a backup program that can mark all your data as having been backed up.

Take those discs offsite. Put them in a safety deposit box, or lock them in a fireproof box and put them at your office or with a family member or something.

Now, periodically do an incremental backup of your critical data. Using a good backup program, it’ll know which files have changed since the last backup, and only back up those ones. Make sure you label these discs well with dates, so you can recover your data in order (you don’t want to restore older copies over newer ones). For the vast majority of people, this incremental backup is probably going to fit on a DVD or two at most. Total cost, maybe a couple of bucks a month, and a few minutes of your time once a week. Take these backups offsite as well.

If you have an extra computer, it’s a nice sanity check to occasionally attempt a restore from your backups to make sure the backups are working correctly. If not, try restoring a random selection of files from your backup discs on occasion.

If you can afford it, set up a RAID 1 system, which is two mirrored drives containing identical data. Basically, it doubles your drive costs, but you can have a drive completely fail and not lose any data.

Now, in the medium term, you may want to ‘refresh’ your backup media. Say, in three or four years you get a computer of much higher capacity than your old one. Before you do anything else (like erase or get rid of your old data drive), restore your backup set to your new machine, and bring it up to the state of your old one without just copying files from the old machine. Use the backups instead. That will validate your backup plan. Compare the two drives, and make sure they are the same. If at this time you notice any long read cycles or other indications that your data is becoming unstable, or get any corrupt files at all from the backup set, delete the corrupt files, copy them from the old hard drive, then box up your old backup discs, seal the box, and put them away. Start a fresh backup set. Keep the old ones around - you never know when something will happen that will make you want to dig into that old set for a file. But don’t keep them in rotation anymore. Just label them and store them. By this time, there may be a better backup medium available (HD-DVD, Blu-Ray, internet archives, whatever). Use the opportunity to upgrade your backup technology.

Be careful in the long term to not get rid of a drive that is the only one that can read your backups. I’ve got a bunch of old QIC tapes kicking around with no drive to read them. I’ve evern got some old cartridges for Bernoulli boxes, with no drive to read them. If you’re getting rid of the last drive that can read any of your backups, make sure to convert your backups to a new technology first.

This is the ‘industrial strength’ backup plan that an IT department might use (well, they’d use tapes, but same idea). It’s up to you to decide how hard-core you want to be about this. But remember - any backup plan that involves only ‘live’ electronics is vulnerable to viruses, lightning, or other catastrophic failure. Any backup strategy that doesn’t include off-site backups is vulnerable to fire and theft. So at the very least, get your backups onto external media on occasion, and get it off-site.

I deal with failed drives every day and handle dozens of them a week. Yes your HD may last ten years but the odds are against it, most of the dead ones I see are three to 5 years old. I replace my storage drive about every two to three years for several reasons.

  1. It’s old.
  2. It’s getting full.
  3. I’m sorely tempted to say “Hi Opal” here, but I won’t.*
  4. I buy drives with a three year warranty.
  5. I can get a faster drive with twice the space for same price as the original.

FYI: I don’t wear a hat. :smiley:

I have removed or replaced drives in just about every Mac made, If it’s been assembled I can take it apart. :slight_smile:

They don’t make drives like they used to. :slight_smile: (seriously)

Internal external doesn’t change things much, one gets moved around more the other sees more activity. I see more failures of the electronics in the enclosures than the drives themselves.

*I lied

May I take a moment to dispel the rumor that the three most important things in computers are “Backup, Backup, Backup”?

They are really, “Backup, Test Restore, Backup”.

So the general feeling is, I guess, that you can trust a single source of backup less than your bank, but if it’s just some movies and games then you’re not gonna be too massively put out if the thing dies?

This is of interest to me as my external drive recently ‘broke’ and I lost around 20gigs of music and games/movies (and possibly photos, but have them on Facebook and Yahoo! too). It wasn’t as bad as losing vital financial/business information but hell it was still a wrench to realise some of my stuff was lost, albeit until I swap/download/copy it all again. Now it’s all backed up twice on (quality) dvds which are stored in separate locations.

[Maybe ‘bank’ was a bad example].