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What causes hard disk failures in general. I would like to know the common causes and how to prevent such incidence.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 13 down vote accepted
  • Extremes of temperature (too hot or too cold)
  • Loss of power while in use
  • Mechanical failure brought about by manufacturing fault
  • Moisture
  • Movement of disk (e.g. if the computer is moved while the disk is in use
  • Vibration
  • Wear and tear (check the manufacturer specs for life expectancy)
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Don't forget basic wear and tear. –  John Gardeniers Aug 8 '09 at 11:48
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mechanical failure due to friction on the bearings and other parts that move... –  Bart Silverstrim Aug 8 '09 at 12:08
    
+1 for heat, probably the most common problem. –  Johan Aug 8 '09 at 17:41
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If a hard disk loses power while it is reading or writing, the head will not be in a parked state, so physical damage could occur. This problem is not as common as it used to be, but is still possible. –  Techboy Dec 7 '09 at 10:46
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Not so much. Modern drives usually have enough capacitance built into the drive to park the heads in the event of power loss. I suppose it's possible, in the same way that anything is possible - it's just VERY unlikely with modern gear. –  Michael Kohne Jan 25 '10 at 21:50
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A hard drive is basically an electromagnet record player sealed in a case. All it's control systems are attached to a circuit board outside the case, and the platters, spindles, and drive heads are inside the case. So there are really two major buckets for hard drive damage: electronics issues and physical issues.

Electronics Issues

The circuit board on the outside of the drive can fail for many reasons.

  • Defect
  • Temperature Extremes
  • Electrostatic Discharge
  • Anything else that causes a circuit bored to fail

A dead board will pretty much kill the affected drive, but the data should be unaffected. Control boards can be replaced but are custom to the exact drive you are using so you'll need the exact board AND firmware. Otherwise you'd need to work with a professional recovery services.

Physical issues

A hard drives platters spin at very high speed with the drive heads being in very close proximity. One of my profs explained it thusly, "Imagine a 747 flying maximum speed about nickel's diameter above ground, and you've got the right idea."

There are several classes of potential damage here:

  • Motor failure
  • Over time small drops, walking around with a running laptop, power outage while the drives are spinning as the actuator arms with heads are engaged will cause the heads to hit the platter and causes cuts or scrapes.
  • Catastrophic case damage (eg. I dropped my laptop off a 5th floor window)
  • Excessive bad sectors will cause the drive to say that its failing

The best explanations of how Hard drives works and how to fix damaged drives are Scott Moulton (speaker at defcon, toorcon, etc.) at http://www.myharddrivedied.com/presentations/

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The heads will instantly jump to the parked state on any modern hard-drive; the HDD has really strong magnets pulling the heads towards their parking spot, so if power is lost the electromagnet in the heads cuts off and they will jump to their "bed". –  Mircea Chirea Dec 23 '10 at 12:07
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The majority of disk failure is due to either damage to the magnetic layer, wear or damage to the spindle bearings or failure of the electronics.

Damage to the magnetic layer is most often caused by the head touching the surface of the platter, either through mechanical jarring of the drive or contaminates getting between the two.

Damage to the spindle bearings is generally through simpe wear and tear, which normally takes quite a few years, of mechanical jarring.

Damage to the electronics can be caused by power spikes of poorly regulated supplies but is most commonly simple device failure.

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2 things:

  • Wear and tear over time.
  • Faults in the manufacturing process that managed to slip through.

A HD is basically a mechanical device that contains moving parts operating in fairly hostile conditions, so it's really not much different to any other such device.

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Good answers above. Google also did a paper discussing disk failures.

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Dust. Some data centers would have much higher rates of disk failure than others; it was usually traced to improper sealing of cement or concrete walls or floors. Modern drives are generally sealed better, but this can still be a factor

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