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Read this before you buy another hard drive

Lucas Mearian | Jan. 23, 2014
It's rare that a company would release internal data on drive failure rates -- even more so when that company, Backblaze, earns its living storing consumer data in the cloud. That makes the hard drive data released this week even more valuable.

So even with Backblaze's hard and fast data on drive failure rates, you might still be left uncertain as to which products are best.

But, assuming Backblaze's failure-rate data is not skewed (and there's no reason it would be), it is still hugely beneficial to consumers: Basically, it offers an evaluation of 15 drive models, details how many BackBlaze used and which ones failed over three years in its data center. And it details the vendors whose products had the best overall reliability.

With that information, buyers can make a vastly more informed choice on which hard drive they'll want in a computer. Although the drives listed by Backblaze are older, Budman said his company plans to release updated failure rates on a quarterly basis.

"That will add data points in terms of drives already in this study as they will get older. We'll also be adding three petabytes of storage capacity per month to our data center, so there's new data to be collected," he said. "So as new drives come out, there will be new data released on them."

The company may also begin reporting how drives failed — for example, whether a read/write head or an internal motor died. That data may be culled from the Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART), an internal drive monitoring software most manufacturers include in their products.

One class of drive the company hopes to add once they're more affordable is helium-filled models. Helium drives will offer up to 6TB of capacity compared to today's 4TB, air-filled drives. Helium reduces friction, so manufacturers can pack more drive platters into a smaller area without overheating.

Unfortunately, because solid-state drives (SSDs) are so much more expensive than hard drives, Backblaze doesn't plan to include those in any studies any time soon — not until SSDs achieve price parity with hard drives, Budman said.

Backblaze likes to buy its hard drives on the cheap: it purchases the least expensive drives from consumer sites such as Pricegrabber.com, Newegg.com and Amazon.com.

Because it buys from retail sites, Backblaze is not beholden to drive suppliers or any pressure they might apply to fend off bad publicity. That said, when Backblaze released its latest blog, Seagate retweeted it. Kudos to Seagate.

Backblaze sticks its consumer drives into RAIDed storage arrays it calls "Pods." That's where it stores customer data. Because the storage servers use RAID, drives can fail and data can be rebuilt because its been striped across multiple drives. In other words, data generally isn't lost when a drive fails.

The company only uses 313 enterprise-class drives in its Dell PowerVault storage systems for corporate data. Even so, last year it published a compelling report comparing enterprise and consumer drive failure rates. It showed the annual failure rate of expensive enterprise-class drives (4.6%) was about the same as cheap consumer-class drives (4.2%).

That blog post went viral, and rightfully so. That kind of information is highly useful, just as the data released this week is. It absolutely deserves your attention.

 

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