While we are always grateful for the business, data recovery is obviously something that you want to avoid, so what is the best way limit your exposure to the risk of losing your data to hardware failure?
Option 1: Buy the World’s Most Reliable Make of Hard Drive?
At Tierra we are often asked for our recommendation for the best hard drive to buy. The reality is that after almost a decade in the business of data recovery we have learned that there is very little to choose between the various manufacturers. We have seen that the proportion of individual makes and models of hard drive that arrive in our labs for data recovery work broadly reflects the proportion in which they are sold. Each manufacturer’s drives tend to have their own unique vulnerabilities and foibles but ultimately the failure rate across the board is largely uniform.
Let’s make the imaginary assumption that there was one particular make and model of hard drive which was demonstrably more reliable than all others, it still would not and could not guarantee that your data would be safe. Nothing is 100% reliable and you have to tailor your behaviour to account for this fact. This will apply regardless of whether the hard drive you have bought is 99.99% reliable or a complete data-trap.
We are asked which drives we buy for our own use, the answer is – the cheapest. There is only one fact regarding hard drive reliability that anyone need take heed of and it is that every hard drive will fail eventually, we just aren’t given the foresight to know whether it will happen today or in 5 years time. Given this simple fact then the best advice is to buy the cheapest hard drive, but buy two and make a point of copying the contents from the first to the second on a regular basis.
Option 2: Make Regular Manual Back-ups of Your Data?
Now we are getting realistic, protecting your data requires a bit of active effort (although as we will see there is helpful hardware out there to assist).
The fundamental question is – what constitutes an adequate back-up? There are differing opinions on this of course but most would agree the following points:
-Critical data must be in at least 2 physically separate locations. Ideally these two locations would be in addition to the working copy. Note that two hard drives within the same computer does not constitute different locations. A single voltage spike on the computer’s power supply could simultaneously destroy both hard drives.Two hard drives within the same computer is not a reliable backup
-Ideally a critical file should be held on your computer’s hard drive (the “working copy”) an external hard drive (perhaps for a weekly back-up) and a memory stick (to hold a daily back-up of your current work). The risk of omitting one of these back-up destinations is that you may lose your vital data during the process of backing up itself. It is a surprisingly common story in any data recovery lab, the client was copying data from their computer to an external hard drive, something went wrong and now the data does not appear to be present at either location. With a three-point back-up routine you can at least minimise your data losses should this occur.
Many external hard drives are supplied with synchronising software as an option. The idea of this software is that the external hard drive will automatically back-up all files in a nominated location or locations on your computer, typically it will first check each file to see if there have been any changes made since the last backup, often only those that have been updated will be copied across. Newer Mac operating systems have this type of software built in (it is called Time Machine). There is no doubt that such software offers a way of reducing the amount of time and effort required to back-up your data. There are however some important caveats:
-We often see occasions where data recovery proved necessary because of a mix-up over source and destination locations when running the synchronising software, often the user has accidentally swapped these and ended up overwriting newer versions of the files with older ones.
-Most of these synchronising software programs conduct what is called incremental back-ups, in other words only partial back-ups are conducted (usually just files that have changed since the previous back-up) this can make restoring your data from the archive a baffling ordeal.
The up-shot of this is that if you are going to use synchronising software to back-up your critical files then it is essential to check from time to time that it has done the job correctly and has indeed backed-up your data. If you do nothing else at least confirm once that you can restore all of the data from your synchronised back-up. It is far better to familiarise yourself with this process when your data is still safe on your computer than trying to do it for the first time with the added stress of potentially losing all of your data genuinely hanging over you.
A word on external hard drives. These are available in two formats, the smaller (2.5” size) externals which are powered from the computer USB port, therefore requiring no separate power supply and the larger (3.5” size) which do require a separate power supply. People are understandably much more likely to buy the small portable variety and there is no question that this is the way the market is moving, however we have seen considerable empirical evidence to suggest that these have a tendency to require data recovery more often than their larger cousins. The jury is still out on precisely why this might be, there is some suggestion that that older style USB ports (pre-USB 3) may not supply sufficient power to the drives at all times or that the problems are caused by users failing to follow the appropriate USB disconnect procedure before removing an external from a computer. In either case it makes sense to stick to the following when using the smaller 2.5” externals:
1. Always use a “Y” USB cable (unless it’s a USB 3 port). This is a cable which simultaneously plugs into 2 USB ports on your computer, this in turn increases the amount of power that can be delivered to the external hard drive. Most external hard drives do not supply this as standard so you will probably have to buy it separately.
2. Never simply unplug an external hard drive from a USB port, always click on the USB disconnect icon and wait until the “safe to disconnect..” message appears, this gives the drive long enough to shut-down in an orderly manner.
Option 3: Use a RAID to Store Your Data?
For a full introduction to RAID have a look at our Dummies Guide to RAID. In essence a RAID is typically an external data storage device which houses multiple physical hard drives configured to form a single storage volume. Different types of RAID perform different functions and are assigned different numbers. If avoiding the need for data recovery is your aim though then there are two RAID types that you should consider: RAID 1 and RAID 5.
RAID 1 (also referred to as a mirror) is typically composed of two physical drives. Every file is simply stored twice, once on each hard drive in the RAID array. This of course can slow access down a little but means that if one of the hard drives dies then you can still get your data back from the second. A typical example is this from Western Digital which holds 2 hard drives, the user can opt to configure them as RAID 1.
RAID 5 is composed of a minimum of 3 physical hard drives and offers increased speed of access to the data stored (when compared to accessing the same data stored on a single hard drive). More importantly it also offers significant redundancy. If any one of the hard drives within the RAID array fails then all of the stored data is still accessible. Only if a second drive fails before the first failure is rectified will data recovery become required. A RAID 5 can do this because in addition to storing the data itself the RAID 5 will also store additional information derived from the user data which allows the data on the lost drive to be deduced, this extra information is called “parity”. This of course means some of the storage space is not available for user data because it is needed for this parity data.
RAIDs are undoubtedly the best way to protect against the need for data recovery, they require a minimum of effort from the user and yet offer significant redundancy, if you have the budget then they should be part of your data protection approach.
They are not however a complete guarantee, we regularly see failed RAID units in for data recovery and in our experience there are a few key points to bear in mind when using RAIDs (there is a detailed article on why RAIDs fail on this page), but in summary:
- Keep your RAID in a physical location where it can be seen (if one drive fails you may not be aware of it if you can’t see it).
- If one of the drives fails, don’t be tempted (or persuaded) to put off taking the necessary remedial action. The users will still have full access to their data and there may be a temptation to leave it for a while, don’t do it. If a second drive fails then you will need to seek out professional RAID data recovery.
Option 4: Use the Cloud to Store Your Files?
This is now a widely available option. Why not keep a backup of your data on a remote server somewhere out in the world? There are some extremely notable advantages:
- Your files will be accessible from anywhere that you can gain an internet connection.
- It is an especially effective way of storing files that are required and shared by multiple users.
- It is incredibly cheap, in fact if you keep within certain capacity limits it can be free.
What are the downsides?
- Not everybody is happy with their data being located on an unknown server with the potential worry of what happens if the company operating it goes bust.
- Upload speeds tend to be much slower than download speeds and therefore you may be surprised just how long it will take to upload your files.
- Some people voice security worries over data stored on the web, however it is hard to argue that you are any more exposed to a hacker if your data is stored in the cloud than would be the case on your own PC with its internet connection.
Some providers of this type of online storage facility are Just Cloud, Zipcloud and Livedrive. Note that these are intended as examples only. We have never used any of these services and therefore are not in a position to endorse any specific cloud storage company.
Like all of the other options for keeping a reliable back-up, using cloud storage is an excellent option but should not be used as the sole answer.
Avoiding Data Recovery Can be as Simple as Spreading Your Files Around
Why not email your most critical files to yourself at another location. Or similarly give friends and family copies of your most cherished photographs, sharing can also perform exactly the same function as backing-up. The same could also be said about Facebook and similar enterprises but recent debates about precisely who owns such online content may have deterred many people from using this as a back-up mechanism.
A combination of these approaches is the answer, which work best for you will depend upon your personal circumstances and personality but adopt at least two of these back-up alternatives and it is very unlikely you will ever need professional data recovery in the future.