Digital heart failure

Before you wonder: yes, I know better.

I discovered my first and, I hope, only casualty of the power outage that occurred the week of 14-19 September 2008: my 500Gb Western Digital NetCenter network attached storage device failed somewhere between the brownouts and the power finally going out.

It is the hard drive clicking and pinging kind of failure, usually indicative of the demise of physical hardware. Typically such failures have a very low probability of being recoverable.

Normally, an equipment failure like this one would not be such a big deal. I back up my PCs and archive important information for future access. Unfortunately, those backups and archives were on the NetCenter, which itself did not have a backup.

More troublingly, some of the information archived on that drive was unique. It was stored there and nowhere else because the drive had such a large capacity. I had stored important information like almost a decade’s worth of email archives and hundreds of digitized personal documents that I have since shredded.

The tragedy of this failure is that it was so easily prevented, after a fashion. When the power started getting funky, I should have shut the drive off. More importantly, I should have performed regular backups of the drive to a separate, offline system. I should have ensured that my archives were backed up in more than one place.

In our modern age of digital everything, it is important to remember that electronic storage is inherently fragile. As more and more of our information is digitized or moves online, having a comprehensive plan for backing up important information is more crucial than ever. There are steps we can all take to ensure that important electronic information is not lost.

Here are a few considerations:

–    The most effective way to back up digital information is on magnetic media–tape drives, hard disks, and the like. Magnetic media has an incredibly long shelf life; however, keep in mind that the more you use such media, the greater the chances it will fail. Also keep in mind that technology changes can render some media obsolete even if the information itself is intact.

–    Always maintain multiple backups of important information. The more important the information, the more backups. Yes, that can get expensive, but how expensive is recreating that information if it is lost?

–    Beware using burnable media like CDs or DVDs for long term archiving. Most commercial burnable media has a relatively short lifespan–less than 20 years for the cheapest media. If you use such media, be sure to research its shelf life and to mark the media for when it needs to be re-archived.

–    Flash media is NOT an acceptable backup. Flash memory degrades over time and use. Items backed up to flash media that does not have power applied to it can degrade in as little as several months. The write cycles for such memory varies, but I have seen USB flash drives fail in less than a year of regular use.

–    Consider offsite storage. One of the most effective ways to keep important archived information safe is to create a copy that can be stored at another location like a friend’s house or a safety deposit box.

Our digital age has given us many advantages, but those advantages come with risks we need to acknowledge and deal with. Backing up our digital information is a must because failures will happen whether we want them to or not.

-=DLH=-

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