Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 11, 2011
 
Failing hard drives

Hard drives fail. Several people commented on my thread about the new computer I ordered pointing out that solid state drives fail a lot more than classic hard drives, especially if in Raid 0 configuration. So I'm reconsidering the raid configuration, especially due to the TRIM issue. But the fundamental issue of the increased likelihood of my solid state hard drive failing doesn't bother me all that much, and here is why.

What exactly is the damage if your hard drive fails? Well, if it fails after the guarantee ran out, there is a financial loss. You need to buy a new one. But generally what people fear more is the loss of data. If that hard drive was the only place where you stored the photos of your children and now it's gone, you've lost something irreplaceable. If the hard drive that crashed contained the nearly finished thesis or book you were writing, you need to start over. And so on. I've been using hard drives for quarter a century now, at work and at home, and I've lost tons of data to hard drive crashes over the years.

Which is why my solid state drive(s) will not have any data of the sort I care about on them. For years already I have separated the drive containing the operating system and programs from the drive containing all the data. My new computer will have all my photos, documents, and other data I care about on the big regular hard drive. With one or two backups (depending on how much I care) on external hard drives, plus in some cases burned on DVD. I've implemented a solid backup strategy for home and work years ago, and haven't lost anything since.

Furthermore a lot of my data these days isn't even stored on my computer any more. I used to play single-player games where if you hard drive with your saved game crashed, my progress in the game would be lost. That isn't the case with MMORPGs. I can erase every trace of World of Warcraft from all my computers and drives, and if I ever restart WoW all my characters will still be there with all their possessions. (I just shouldn't throw away the authenticator.) The same is true for other online games I'm playing, like World of Tanks. My blog is stored somewhere in the Google cloud. So is all my e-mail. Right now Google going bankrupt would be a much bigger loss of data for me than if my main computer with all hard drives exploded.

Hard drives fail. But between data being stored off-site, and a good backup plan, that has stopped worrying me years ago. If my new solid state drives go belly-up in a year, it will not be a catastrophic loss. I just lose the price of the new one and an afternoon to re-install everything. And the next generation of drives will be cheaper and more stable again. The risk of crashing is the price I pay to be at the edge of technology.
Comments:
Tom's Hardware looked at failure rates in SSD and more traditional mediums. Their conclusion was that is is too early to be sure but current SSD and spinners are fairly close in reliability and the biggest factor to failure is age (The likelihood of HDD failure increases as it gets older).

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/ssd-reliability-failure-rate,2923.html
 
There's also the tradeoff between convenience, cost, and data safety. Saving against a hard disk failure? Yep, backups. If you don't want to lose the data, but it won't make you curse yourself for the rest of your life, and it's so voluminous that (possibly multiple) backups hurt, use a raid-with-parity as "poor man's backup". I do that for raid videos from old raids with old guilds.

The question comes when you get to off-site backup solutions. Do you want to protect your family picture collection against the house burning down? Did you save your old, analog pictures against such a disaster? Do you need to do it for digital ones now? I thought about setting up a HD rotation with backups I put at my parent's home whenever I visit them, but so far, the cost and inconvenience have stopped the realization.
 
While the unreliance of RAID 0 played into my advice against that, my advice against SSDs is simply that for the price they're currently at, you may not see as big a boost as you expect; cheaper to go with platter drives and more RAM, as Win7 is outstanding at caching frequently used data, which can get you a good majority of the performance boost you'd see from a SSD.
 
My current data regime runs something like this:

Games - Who cares? I can always re-install. Worst case I lose a few save games but with so many games online nowadays even that isn't an issue.

Emails - I trust to the cloud and Google's server network. I used to download them all and store locally as well but I got fed up of that. Perhaps this is foolish but it sure is convenient.

My work files - Multiple backups on and off site.

My Blogs - actually I have no back up of my blogs. Not that they contain much of value but I do have a sentimental attachment to them. Another case of "In Google we trust".

Family photos - This is actually my biggest worry because my wife is a photo enthusiast and generates about 100Mb of digital memories every month. Most of them will never be looked at again but who has the time to decide which ones? I checked out cloud storage but it is still expensive so we rely on multiple removable hard disks.

Of the twenty or so conventional hard drives I have used to save important data on over the years I can remember at least two irretrievable failures. I don't know if I am just unlucky but this 10% failure rate has convinced me not to rely on a single point of failure for important data.
 
my advice against SSDs is simply that for the price they're currently at, you may not see as big a boost as you expect

I'll keep you posted on whether I end up being satisfied with the choice.

I do believe that a major problem is *perceived* speed vs. actual speed. I do believe that works to the advantage of SSDs, because they tend to speed up exactly those phases in everyday computer use where you are most likely to stare at the screen waiting for something. A faster graphics card or faster CPU will make your games "run faster", but that "faster" is measured in things like frames per second. A SSD will make your computer boot up faster and reduce the time in a game you look at the loading screen. That might end up *feeling* like a bigger increase than it actually is.
 
From my experience, SSD does boost speed quite a bit. Boot time, start time of software, update time, load time, etc. I wouldn't go back.

I'm no hardware expert but from what I read, when it comes to SSD, the bigger the better (the faster). So I'm wondering whether it wouldn't be better to invest whatever amount it cost to buy two 270Gb SSD and buy one bigger SSD instead.

As for failure, having a backup or even better an image of your SSD on another HDD is probably worth the small trouble.
 
For reference, I test hard drives and SSDs that have been used and are presumed to be bad as part of my job (among other HW components).

GOOD SSDs don't fail more often than GOOD standard spindle disks. CRAPPY SSDs fail at the same rate as CRAPPY HDDs.

There are a lot of poor quality SSDs out there, just as there are poor quality...just about everything. Does anyone remember when Blu-ray was first introduced and was pronouced dead due to the huge problems with the first batch? Less to do with the technology, and more to do with companies putting out inferior product to hop on the new technology bandwagon.

As others have said, I would stay away from RAID configurations - SSDs or HDDs. The short version is - drives in a RAID often perform many more read/write operations than standalone drives. They have the combined performance of all drives in the array - but also have the combined failure/error rate of all drives in the array. It's like driving your car at the redline everytime you drive it.

I would only use RAID if I needed redundancy for some reason. And you'd need/want at least 3 drives for that. (RAID 1 is a joke)

Regarding increased performance - I personally like what SSDs offer in that category. Tobold, you are right when you say most of the performance gain is seeing fewer seconds of a loading screen, as opposed to better actaul game play. Though, not important, it's nice to load into a dungeon in your favorite MMO 10-15 secs before the rest of your group. Anything that improves the gaming experience gets a huge thumbs up from me.
 
Tobold, what do you do for a backup strategy? I have an shock-resistant external USB hard drive, kept at my office in case the house is burglarized or burns down. Once a month, I bring the drive home and run Syncback (freeware) to apply a differential backup -- that is, backup only new files and ones that have changed. I also encrypt the whole drive with Truecrypt (more freeware). Most of my valuable data is family pictures.

As for pre-digital pictures, my wife sent a bunch of photo albums to ScanCafe, and we got back a DVD of them. I keep that DVD at the office too.
 
Jeff Atwoods most interesting point is that even though SSD's fail often he'd no longer want to work on a PC without one.

And yes, I've been separating my data from programs for quite some time now. Worst case scenario I loose my save games (and my firefox password history). And even that's more and more solved by things like the steam cloud.
 
Apologies if this is going to sound like some kind of an ad -- but it just so happens that I've been looking for some online backup solution myself. So far I'm undecided, but two candidates seem to be very good. Both offer unlimited storage for about 5$ / month (which is dirt-cheap as far as I am concerned):

http://www.backblaze.com/internet-backup.html
http://www.carbonite.com/en/home/online-backup-pricing

Would love to know if someone has experience with those.
 
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