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Dying hard drive woes


There are few things more annoying or scary to an IT person than a dying/dead hard drive. Annoying because you are often expected to make the drive magically come back to life when often it’s beyond any help; scary because if it’s an important drive that was never backed up, the contents of said drive may never be recovered.

Last week it seemed a perfect storm hit me. On Friday morning I checked our school admin server for errors in the Event Viewer for an unrelated matter. I then noticed that there were warnings in the log that the hard drive controller reported imminent failure. This was a Seagate 500GB model that was about 2.5 years old. I installed SeaTools on the drive and it confirmed that the drive was not healthy. I made the snap decision that I would virtualise the server to our XenServer that afternoon. While I had backups of the school admin server, the server could not afford any down time as we needed to enter and process academic marks.

That afternoon I started the process and got the server virtualised. It took a long time, but luckily everything worked ok in the end. All the files transferred. I shut down the sick server, booted the copy in Xen up and went on getting that server up to speed. One of the side effects is that I now have one less old server taking up space in the rack, and the virtualised copy is more robust than it had been on the physical server. Big sigh of relief, problem solved!

On the weekend, I booted up into my Windows 8 drive at home to do some work in Hyper-V. I’d noticed in the preceding week that this hard drive had vanished a few times during boot up, but I wasn’t too concerned. I did my work in Windows 8, but when I was shutting down, I started noticing some noises coming from the drive, like the motor powering down and up. Not the usual click of death, but a fatal wound anyway. This is a Seagate 250GB model.

The next day when I tried to boot into Windows 8, it wouldn’t get past the sign in screen. It would simply sit spinning around endlessly. More noises started coming from the drive. Boot back into Windows 7, run SeaTools. As suspected, this drive was on death’s door. I wanted to save my Windows 8 drive so that I wouldn’t need to reinstall and end up downloading all the updates again. There’s luckily no special data on that drive, besides the OS. I don’t have many spare drives laying around at home, so I ripped out the only other 250GB I had, which was in my old PC.

I was determined to clone the drive, but I had no luck. Drive Image XML would bum out after a minute as it hit problems on the drive. ImageX would also crash when it hit those problems. Clonezilla would crash when hitting those areas as well. The Unix DD command copied about 30GB before it crashed out, despite being told to run through errors. ddrescue managed to go through the whole drive, but it too crashed at the end. Perhaps I should have tried again. When I booted back into Windows 7, checkdisk took almost 45 minutes repairing file system damage to the cloned drive.

Unfortunately, said cloned drive refused to boot, despite all the files being there. Booting up off the Windows 8 DVD didn’t help, as it didn’t recognise the drive as a valid Windows 8 install, so I couldn’t run any of the automated repair tools. Then the cloned drive started making noises! Ran SeaTools and it failed that drive as well. Oddly, after I changed SATA ports and ran SeaTools again, the clone drive passed this time. However, I don’t trust this judgement.

As it stands at this moment, the original 250GB hard drive will boot, but will hang when trying to log into Windows and it is definitely a dying drive. The clone drive works but looks like it is terminal as well.

The scary part is that we are always taught to back up our data. Hard drive sizes have shot up in recent years, currently up to 4TB. Backing up to DVD is not really worth it or feasible anymore due to this size jump. The cloud makes sense for documents and a small photo collection, but becomes impractical for OS level type backups. External hard drives are probably the easiest, but they too can fail. It’s an interesting problem I don’t think we’ve yet managed to fully wrap our heads around.

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