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Exposing the myths of USB Hard Drives

Recently, due to an influx of data related issues that I have had to help our clients sort out, it has come to my attention that there is the widespread misconception among average computer users that storing data solely on an external device (Hard drive enclosure, USB flash drive, ETC.) is an acceptable backup solution. This is simply not the case. If you are someone who is currently using an external drive to store your priceless photos or massive music collection I implore you to read further, they could be in danger!  I get the feeling when I talk to some people about their external hard drives that they believe external hard drives are in some way different from the internal drives in their PC’s, that they are made of different materials, even different technologies if you will. I also get the feeling that because of this people tend to think that they are more robust than internal drives. To put it simply, external hard drives are the EXACT SAME drives as the ones located in your computer, just placed inside a fancy plastic case with a USB cable attached to it. They are just as susceptible to failure as any other hard drive, sometimes even more so because they can be moved around a lot more, but I’ll address that later on. USB flash drives can be just as finicky, especially the cheaper ones. For instance, if you forget to use the hardware removal wizard in windows to properly eject your USB flash drive from the computer when you’ve finished using it, the USB drive can become corrupted and unrecognisable to the computer thus destroying all of your data. This is a simple mistake that can be made if you’re in a rush or just feeling a little bit slower than normal. Either way, it only takes this happening once in some cases to ruin all of your data.

At this point, some of you may be wondering why your hard drives are failing at all. “It’s not like I abuse my hard drive or anything! How did this happen?” is a sentiment I get a lot from people who are having hard drive issues. Really as unfortunate as it sounds, you don’t actually have to do much if anything in order to have your hard drive fail on you. Sure there are ways you can slow down hard drive degradation like shutting down your computer properly and keeping it in a clean well ventilated environment where it will be less likely to get clogged with dust, but even if you are an A+ when it comes to taking care of your computer, the hard drive will still fail eventually. See, hard drives are the only integral part of your system that contain moving parts, magnetic platters to be exact. These spin at high speeds inside the drive and all of the data is stored on them. The platters themselves are susceptible to shock damage. Not necessarily electrical shock ( although that does them in just aswell), but shock from movement like falling, being bumped, jerked, carried, repositioned and even the spinning of the platters themselves can wear them down. So as you can see, it doesn’t take a lot to wear out your hard drive, and now that you know movement plays a huge factor you can see how external drives may even wear out faster than internal ones. I’d personally like it if they changed the old saying to, “nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and hard drive failure”.

Knowing what you know now, you can probably see why storing data in a single location regardless of the location type is not really a backup solution but a recipe for disaster. It’s best to get in the habit of storing your important data in at least 2 separate locations. External drives are fine for backups as long as you have the same information stored internally in the computer aswell. That way if one of the drives fails, you can replace it and still have your data on the other drive. Of course the first thing you’ll want to do is replicate the data back to the new drive again to be sure that you always have the data stored on two separate locations. If you want to be extra thorough, you can back up your data to the internet where it will be stored on the “cloud”. Data you store on the cloud is virtually indestructible as the cloud is made up of several servers acting as backups for each other. If one of the cloud servers fails, its backup will kick in and you won’t even notice (Of course the backup server has its own backup, and that backup probably has a backup aswell. Feel like your data is safe on the cloud yet?). Redundancy is the important term here. The hardware that you backup with, the brand name of hard drive you buy and the price of your USB flash drive are all trivial in comparison to whether or not your data has redundancy. If you take anything away from this post, let it be that.

Shaun Lawrie is a PC enthusiast currently working for REP4 Technologies. He is striving to increase his knowledge and certification level in various IT fields and is especially interested in network security and remote management.

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