Read this before you buy another hard drive

Backblaze's unvarnished look at hard drives will likely be refreshed quarterly

binary hard drive storage disk

Data storage service provider Backblaze yesterday revealed failure rates among more than 27,000 consumer-class hard drives it uses in its data center.

The breadth and depth of Backblaze's data has given consumers unprecedented access to specific hard drive failure rates across the three largest vendors of the technology: Seagate, Hitachi and Western Digital. It offers an unvarnished look at hard drives (models and serial numbers included), and even details which drives Backblaze will no longer use because they're so unreliable.

While users should check out the actual data for more granular information, the big picture boils down to this: Over a three-year period, 3.1% of Hitachi's drives failed; 5.2% of Western Digital's drives died; and a sizable 26.5% of Seagate's drives failed.

"Hitachi does really well," Backblaze said in its blog. "There is an initial die-off of Western Digital drives, and then they are nice and stable. The Seagate drives start strong, but die off at a consistently higher rate, with a burst of deaths near the 20-month mark."

The study includes data on 15 drive models totaling more than 12,000 drives each from Seagate and Hitachi, and almost 3,000 drives from Western Digital. There were also several dozen drives from both Toshiba and Samsung, but not enough for solid statistical results.

Healthy skepticism

IT vendors often pitch studies and "user surveys" to the press. Most of the time, those studies are overtly self-serving. For example, my colleagues and I regularly get study and survey pitches from security software makers on consumer data vulnerability -- i.e. "your data is vulnerable, buy our software to protect it."

Professional journalists typically ignore these kinds of reports, unless they can be used in concert with objective data. So why make a big deal over Backblaze's data?

Gleb Budman, Backblaze's co-founder and CEO, told Computerworld today that his company lives by the ethos that, when it can, it will openly share information that helps others. And no, that doesn't include customer data.

"We use Linux, we use Tomcat, we use Apache. We use a variety of open-source software and information people publish about technology or marketing. So we like to give back when we can," he said.

Now, for a grain of salt. Obviously, on some level Backblaze compiled the drive failure-rate data to draw attention to its $5-a-month storage service. The message is simple: If hard drives fail, yours could too. So go out and sign up for the cloud storage service.

But in this one case, the data offered by Backblaze is still compelling.

Racks of Backblaze's Pods - storage arrays filled with consumer-class hard drives

It goes without saying that the hard drive industry is an incestuous one where companies regularly acquire one another's technology. Going back to the early 2000s, Maxtor acquired Quantum's drive division; Seagate acquired Maxtor; then it purchased Samsung's and LaCie's. In 2009, Toshiba bought Fujitsu's drive business. In 2011, Western Digital purchased Hitachi's drive facilities and then sold them to Toshiba. You can try to keep up, but it's not easy.

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