Do I need to replace old backup hard drives?

Joseph Videtto January 13, 2013
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I’ve got quite a bit of data that I value, and it’s been backed up on some 1 to 2 TB drives for quite a few years now – I don’t even know how many, but it’s between 3 and 5 (I have a hard time remembering facts like this – guess I could go look for receipts, which I might find if they’re digital : )

Should I consider ever replacing my ‘aging’ backup hard drives due to ‘old age’ ? or is there another way to prevent an unexpected disc error without ‘prematurely’ buying new hard drives. It is quite a few hundred dollars to replace 3 or 4 one to two TB drives….don’t want to do it more than is necessary.

BTW – my drives are not in RAID configuration right now. I’ve been backing up with file copies (I know – very unsophisticated, but this has been my ‘legacy’ process – haven’t evolved to RAID yet : )

  1. Adrian Bagnato
    January 15, 2013 at 8:21 am

    I assume that you're using a NAS? Or do you actually have 3-5 x 1-2TB hard drives?
    If it's not a NAS, then get a NAS. I'm saving up for a Synology DS412+ with 4 x 4TB hard drives, the whole thing is gonna set me back $2500, but you can get cheaper NAS' with more bays and fill it with (cheaper) 3TB hard drives for less than $1000.

  2. dragonmouth
    January 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    How often do you actually power up those drives? From some of the comments you made, it sounds as though some of the drives have not been powered up in years and others have low hours of usage. If that is so and IF you have stored them under optimum conditions, they should be in almost brand new condition for all intents and purposes. So you need not worry about imminent failure.

    It is not the actual physical age of the drive that is the determining factor in failure, it is the amount of use and abuse that they drive went through. I still use small (6-10 GB) IDE drives made in the mid 1990's and have not had one fail in years. But I do not run them 24/7/365. I use them rarely and for short periods of time.

  3. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    January 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    I think you should. Nowadays 3-5 years drive is pretty much nearing the end. You could be lucky, but if they're really of value then I think it's worth it. How if you sort your data so documents and photo(generally small) could be uploaded for extra copy on the cloud, old unused data could be deleted for good, and assign importance tag to the rest: e.g very very important, important, and 'good to keep, but if lost doesn't hurt so much'. It'd help you to plan what to do next.

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      January 14, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      Oh, you mentioned you have many videos-how about archiving them in DVD/Bluray? High quality media like Taiyo Yuden is reported to be long lasting, at least more than 5 years, especially if you take a good care on them.. You still have to replace the discs after some time, but it'd cost less than hard drives and you don't need to do it as often.

  4. ha14
    January 13, 2013 at 11:07 am

    perhaps you want to consider cloud based backup for valuable files.

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      January 14, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      With 5TB of data he has, I can't imagine how long and expensive it'd be.

      • ha14
        January 14, 2013 at 2:49 pm

        quite right 5TB can be expensive, perhaps to consider only for very important files, accidents can happen even with new hard drives.

  5. Oron Joffe
    January 13, 2013 at 11:01 am

    The rule of thumb (and a rough one at that), says that hard discs fail at a rate of about %5 per year for the first 3-4 years, although there is some evidence from research by Google that the rate is initially lower and goes up later on. This is a very rough indicator since it's based on manufacturer and data-centre statistics, and your pattern of use would be quite different (far less "on" hours, but more moving of the drives).
    If you have another copy of the data (which the term "backup" suggests), you could rely on SMART or other signs of failure and replace when you start noticing problems. Personally, I think I would replace the drive after 5 years regardless. After all, we have no idea what the long term health of the drive would be - an electronic component may fry (has happened on most of the big brands at one time or another), a bit of adhesive or plastic may perish etc.

    • Joseph Videtto
      January 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Has any of the research taken useage patterns into account ? I would think that is an important factor that people would be interested in. Then again,given the cost and expense of this type of testing, and the cost of each drive, I could see why no one would bother. Also - if someone has a RAID setup - what are the chances, even if you don't replace every 5 years, having one drive go bad and the other on it's ' last leg' so that it also fails during the restore (keep in mind - not an uncommon scenario if you take into account the amount of copying and heat generated to replace a multi-TB hard drive, as Jan pointed out to me above).

  6. Wong Wee
    January 13, 2013 at 7:13 am

    In addition to scanning your drive with SMART tools, SMART can predict drive failures but it's hit and miss, consider at least setting up a RAID 1 to mirror your backup HDD, especially if your data is irreplaceable

  7. Paul Pruitt
    January 13, 2013 at 3:12 am

    Well usually drives, even older ones, have the SMART technology built into them that is supposed to give an idea of the health of a drive. But it is not always reliable.

    Here is a good review of freeware which can examine the health of your drives:

  8. Jan Fritsch
    January 13, 2013 at 2:51 am

    You can check the drives health using e.g. CrystalDiskInfo.

    You can prevent premature failing by proper handling:
    - storing them neither in too hot or too cold environments
    - don't power them on until they have room temperature
    - reduce transfers to a minimum e.g. doing incremental backups instead of deleting and copying everything all the time
    - if possible pause backups or do them in smaller steps so the drives don't run too hot during large copy operations
    - always keep an "ear" on them because the sound is usually the first thing that gives away a failing drive

    Other then that you can't really prevent that one of the drives is going to fail at some point.

    Have look into alternative options e.g. online backup using a service like Backblaze or CrashPlan?

    • Joseph Videtto
      January 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      Some of my backup drives are actually external drives disconnected from the computer and stored on a shelf - maybe forgotten about and left there for 6 months to 2 years without electricity. I had read in another forum post that the 'startup' or spin-up / spin-down mechanism needs to be periodically utilized to keep it working properly - any thoughts about whether there's any validity to that ?

      Also - I've occasionally done full disk copies from one drive to another - does such extended writing diminish the life, assuming the temperature remains below a certain level (and is there anything to monitor hard drive temperature to automatically run the copy unattended while pausing to cool down when a certain temperature is reached ?).

      I have like 5 TB of data that's of value to me (mostly MP3 and video files - inherently large) and I can't imagine it being cost effective to use such a service.

      And lastly - how do you know so much about hard drive usage : ) Do you work in the industry, or just a hobbyist with lots of experience ?

      • Jan Fritsch
        January 13, 2013 at 6:07 pm

        Two years sounds borderline to me but shouldn't be an issue. If it was like 5 years I wouldn't trust the drive with my data anymore.

        I don't know if it's good or bad if they are not used over long term ~ it could be bad for the bearing or so. Hard drives contain mechanical parts and you wouldn't really trust a car that's been sitting for two years, right? But if there was an issue with a moving part you would know it the time you start copying.

        If you use them every 6-12 months or so you should be fine. Also the odds (or risk) of both, the actual storage and your backup failing at the same time is rather low.

        Measuring the temperature has to be supported by the controller the drive is connected to. For external drives this may not be possible as e.g. USB drives usually don't provide that information.

        As long as the temperature remains within specifications it doesn't really matter what you do. It's the other way around: Extended writing periods will utilize the drives for a longer time and cause more heat.
        If it runs hot once a year so be it. If it was once a week I would suggest to change your strategy.

        I don't know of any method to do it all automatically but most backup tools offer you to pause the process in between. So if you backup like 2TB of data just stop after 1TB and let the drive cool down a bit.

        I know it's more convenient to have backups run unattended over night but consider the risks: You don't really know whether the process suddenly took 6 instead of 1 hour or the drive made some weird noise. The backup could have finished successful although the drive is about to fail.

        Do you have "spare" drives that you perform full copies from one to another?
        How about rotating them instead? For example you could perform backups every 6 months and just rotate the external drives. Even if one drive fails you'd have another backup only 6 months older.

        I prefer to say I only know so much (there's a lot more to learn) ~ I'm hobbyist and work as a sysadmin. So my job does involve planning, evaluating and rolling out large storage or backup systems.

        In private I'm pretty sloppy with that ~ mostly because I consider 99% of my data as important but not enough to invest in large backups. The stuff I do care about is backed up multiple times - on my server, two external drives and some of it even on a floppy disk ;-)

  9. Anonymous
    January 13, 2013 at 2:00 am

    Mainly you're just going to have to wait until your disks start giving you some sort of sign that they are failing. However, there's a chance that it could just randomly fail. It's all on you really to decide.

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