What if your hard drive failed today?

What if your hard drive failed today?

Would you lose all your photos?

Of course, we all hope this day never comes. However, did you take the necessary precautions so you won’t be losing all your photos? In this article, I am going to explain to you the potential causes of data loss. I will show you some ways of protecting yourself from losing all your work by making backups. 

Causes of data loss

User error

You might think the file xxx.dng is that photo which did not turn out at all. So you delete it and empty your computer’s trash can. However, after a while it turns out it was not a bad photo-file, indeed it was that once in a lifetime photo, which you accidentally deleted.

Fluids and electronics don’t mix well

 You have you heard the stories of all those people who seem to believe watering their hard drives makes them grow in storage space? Yea, somehow they are always surprised if that hard drive afterward fails to work. Now, of course, you can send it to its vendor paying some hundreds if not thousands of dollars to see if they can restore it for you. Your supplier won’t give you any guarantees that they can restore the data for you, so if you are unlucky your hard drive might have entered hard drive hell, and its data lost for good.
OK, some of those people pour wine or other drinks by accident over their hard drives too. Seriously, an intoxicated hard drive does not work very good. In general electronics and fluids are not a good mix. 

Not ejecting hard drives before taking them off

Then, of course, there are those who accidentally disconnect an external hard drive by taking out the cable before the secure disconnection aka unmounting completes. I have been guilty of this one at least more than once myself. What might happen is that you disconnect the drive while information is still written to it, which leads to corrupt files.

If you have a common hard drive (HDD) as opposed to a solid state drive (SDD), not disconnecting it properly can cause physical damage too.

When you eject a standard hard drive, its writing arm is moved into a safe position. If you now take your hard drive to a different location, the writing arm is locked and cannot do any harm to the area where your data is stored.
However, if you did not eject your hard drive before moving it, the writing arm can still move freely across the area that stores your data. This can alter some or all of the data that is stored on that hard drive into a corrupt state, or in worse case those moving parts might break off leaving you with a hard drive that is no longer accessible.

Technical hard drive failure

Then there are causes against which you can hardly protect yourself 100%. Like simple hard drive failure. Did you know, that after 3 years of usage the chance of getting hard drive failures increases significantly? Only 50% of all hard drives survive beyond their fourth year without failure. (Source: https://www.backblaze.com/blog/how-long-do-disk-drives-last/

Natural disaster and theft

Moreover, there are causes you would like to never experience, like theft, fire, lightning, and flooding — alternatively, other forms of (more or less) natural disaster. 

What is the main difference between the first examples and the last one? Well, the first ones might only affect one drive at a given time. The last one most likely affects all drives in the same location. So this can include the backup drive that you have next to all the other hard drives in your house.

How to protect your photos from data loss?

The best way of saving yourself from data loss is, of course, having multiple copies of your data on different drives. Your computer’s operating system, both Mac and Windows, comes with software to regularly create backups from your data. However, you would need another hard drive which is at least as big as the hard drive you are taking a backup of to store said backup. These kinds of backups work well for your primary internal hard drive, but does not store all those photos. If you wanted to use the same mechanism to create backups of your photos, I am afraid you would have to purchase quite a few hard drives to store the backups. So, this does not sound like the best way of doing so.

I highly recommend installing a backup system for your internal hard drive(s), using OSX’s TimeMachine mechanism or the Windows backup system to create regularly backups of your files.

For your photos, I recommend other ways of protection, since the amount of data that you will want to protect is larger than what your internal drive can store – at least if you keep on photographing.

So how do I protect my photos from getting lost?

When I started in digital photography, I would come home from a vacation, copy my memory cards to a hard drive and then burn a DVD with said photos. Unfortunately, over the years the amount of photos that I take during a tour has increased. So has the amount of memory one photo takes up. For my latest adventure holiday, I would have needed at least 24 8GB DVDs.

So burning the files to DVD became somewhat impractical and time-consuming. 

First steps after returning from a photo tour

When I now come home from a photo tour, I still copy all my photos to one of my hard drives. Only that after that first copy, I copy the very same files to at least two more hard drives. Should one of them fail, I should be reasonably on the safe side when it comes to user error and technical errors of one drive. However, I do more than just this.

Using RAID1 systems

The hard drive that holds my Adobe ® Lightroom catalog is not one drive, but a system created out of three hard drives. Two of them are mirrors of each other, while the third steps in if one of the first two fails. This system is called a RAID1 system. 

Since those two drives are mirrors of each other, this system cannot protect me against my stupidity, of deleting files that I wanted to keep. However, should one of those active drives fail with some hardware error I still have the data on the second hard drive.

The downside of this system is that the restoring of the system by taking a failing drive out and replacing it with a new one takes not only hours but days. Days during which I cannot switch off my computer without starting the restoring all over again. At least I can still use the data from the working hard drive while the restoring process is ongoing.

Can you get away without configuring a RAID system manually? 

Yes, that is possible too. There are systems available, like Drobo or NAS drives, that are set up as RAID systems internally. The idea sounds appealing to me, but I haven’t had a chance to give it a try. From what I have read they are easily set up. However, with NAS systems that you can access the internet, you need to take some precautions to ensure that strangers cannot access them too. 

However, I am not protected against natural disaster yet, am I?

So far, what I have described are hard drives that are all stored in my house. If a disaster happened, I could still lose all my data. Did I not just tell you not to store everything at your home, and now I do it myself?

No, I don’t 🙂 

One of the first actions I took was to copy all photos and other important files to a separate hard drive. (One of them, not connected to the RAID system.) Before every vacation, however short, I make sure that drive is updated and then disconnect it from my computer and take it to my workplace, where I lock it up. Should something happen to my drives at home, I should at least have one copy of my precious photos. 

Another one of these copies is at my parent’s place – in my case, that means in a different country – and it is updated whenever I go to visit them. 

However, even that is not always enough. I mean, sure it’s nice that all photos, from last year, are at my parent’s place. However, should something happen right now, how long would it take me before I got there to get the files? Moreover, what about the photos that I have taken since I returned from my last visit?

Offside, online storage

So I decided I wanted another offside storage. I wanted a solution, where I could access my data from anywhere in the world and which would be updated with the newest files instantly. Therefore I decided to sign up for a cloud storage solution. There are plenty of cloud storage solutions, so you will have to figure out which one is the very best for your needs.

Some, like Google or iCloud, might offer a certain amount of data storage for free. Others, like Dropbox, might have features like easily sharing files with other people. I, however, wanted more. I wanted automated backups that would run in the background at all times. Also, I wanted an easy way to download my files in case of a significant incidence. 

Have you ever tried downloading 4 TB of data from online storage?

I have.

Oh, yes, it means I had a significant incident a few years back. Right before I created my RAID system the drive with all my photos on failed. Worse: there were some that I could not find again on my other hard drives or the DVDs.

I was cursing a lot that day. However, a few months before the incident I had signed up to the cloud backup solution. I started by trying to figure out which files I had lost during my incident. So that I could recover them by download from the cloud.

Hours into the recovery, I realized it would take me days if not weeks to recover all that I needed. So, their solution of sending me a new encrypted hard drive with all the data from the drive that just entered hard drive hell saved me from quite a few days of cursing. Within a week I held the backup drive in my hands and lost 0 files.

However, this online solution has another fantastic solution at hand. When I, in late 2017, prepared the photos for my exhibition while visiting my parents, I realized that I hadn’t all the files with me that I needed. So what to do now? I just logged into my online backup solution and downloaded the photo from there. Problem solved.

How to know how old your hard drive is?

There is a little trick that I am using to keep track of the age of my hard drives. Remember, 50% fail after reaching four years of age. All my hard drives have a little sticker attached to them – one of those you would use for the freezer-containers. On this sticker, I write the name of the hard drive, and the year when I started using it. This way, I can be sure that the unmounted drive is the one that I am taking of the grid. I also always have an overview of when a drive might be near hard-drive-heaven.

What about you? Do you have a backup system for your precious files? How does it look like? Does this article sound like complete overkill?

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