Why you should always have hard drive monitoring

I have this weird habit of monitoring my hard disk drive’s health every time after traveling (since bumpy rides can have adverse effect on your laptop’s hard drive). For this very purpose, I always have Acronis Drive Monitor (http://www.acronis.com/en-us/homecomputing/download/drive-monitor) installed on my system.

I have been using Acronis Drive Monitor (ADM) on my system ever since I bought it in November 2014. Recently however, it started showing critical warnings on my disk. It was showing bad sectors on my drive. My hard drive health (as indicated by ADM) fell from 100% to 68%.

Consequently, I ran the inbuilt Windows chkdsk (check disk) utility on each drive. For my C: drive however, it required a reboot.

Upon rebooting, the scan and repair process hung on 19% for a good two hours, clearly indicating disk damage.

What are bad sectors and disk failure?

Bad sectors are a normal phenomena on all types of hard drives. Mechanical hard drives (HDD’s) however, are more prone to bad sectors and disk damage from vibration/jerky rides as compared to solid state disks (SSD’s). In fact, it is even normal for your hard drive to ship with bad sectors. With billions of storage cells, it is normal for some to be damaged during the manufacture and shipping process. For this reason, hard drives come with in built functionality in the firmware which ‘remaps’ bad sectors to spare sectors (hard drive actually have spare storage cells). This remapping stores the record of damaged cells and the firmware is intelligent enough to hide the damage from the computer as much as it can (it doesn’t let the computer/operating system know of the remapping and handles it itself!).

It should not be forgotten though, that these spare cells are limited. They will run out one day and the damage will start to show up to the operating system. From this point onwards, the operating system, and more specifically, the file system will take over the task. NTFS for example, stores the record of bad sectors.

When you perform a quick format, these bad sectors are not detected/remapped by the file system (NTFS, FAT, etc). When you perform a full format however, these bad sectors are taken into account and marked unusable. This is exactly why Windows recommends that you do a quick format ONLY if you have done a full format recently. Read more about it on http://superuser.com/a/688764/10165.

What are the signs of failure?

Hard drives rarely fail instantly. Degradation is a gradual process. Most modern hard drives come with a feature: S.M.A.R.T. Monitoring. This enables utilities to query the hard drive for its health (like ADM). Unfortunately, Windows does not include an inbuilt feature to monitor S.M.A.R.T. health of disk drives. Most users do not even know that their hard drive is failing.

What to do in case of these signs?

This is the most important part of this post. Usually, backups are recommended, however, few users actually practice it. You should always store important data on the cloud, however, you can never fully rely on the cloud and you keep most frequently used/modified data on the hard drives.

If you do not have external backup drives, then these signs can save your life. You have two options:

  1. Instantly replace the drive, copying over almost all data without an issue
  2. Perform a full format on all drives to mark the bad sectors as unusable

Remember that option 2 will only temporarily extend the life of your hard drive (the degradation has started and whatever caused the bad sectors to appear in the first place are still there).

Performing full format on the root drive

Full formats are easy on the secondary drives (D, E, F, etc) however, in order to perform a full format on the C: drive, the procedure is slightly different since you cannot do it from within Windows.

Start off by booting from the Windows install disc. On the partitioning screen, press SHIFT+F10 to pop up a Command Prompt.

In the Command Prompt, type in the following commands:

diskpart ::opens the diskpart utility
list disk ::lists the connected disk drives
select disk 0 ::usually 0 is the ID of the local hard drive
list partition ::lists the partitions on the selected drive
select partition X ::X should be the number of the C: drive
format fs=ntfs ::performs a full format

You can then close the utility by typing in ‘exit’ twice. Then continue the install as usual.

Always have disk monitoring installed in case you keep valuable data on the hard drive. It will help you backup in time and save you from the day when your drive suddenly gives up, leaving no option but to panic.

Summary

Hard drive monitoring is a relatively easier way out for most people who either do not have backup media, or are too lazy to configure backups.

Drive monitoring has no effect on the performance of your system and S.M.A.R.T. monitoring requires just querying the hard drive for it’s health on regular basis.

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