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Disk Errors

Detecting and Repairing Disk Errors, Part I

Using a computer is all fun and games until someone experiences a data loss situation. While the years have certainly seen exponential increases in hard disk capacity, speed, and more, the fact is that magnetic media-based mass storage devices such as hard disk drives are still an unreliable, sensitive technology. Though the basic magnetic storage medium itself is relatively uncomplicated, actually reading and writing information to and from it involves a formula carried out by a host of small, complicated mechanical parts, where the inevitable outcome is a failed piece of equipment—it's the old problem of when, not if. Ironically, the massive data capacities now commonly available only mean that when a hard drive fails in some manner someone's going to lose a lot of information. Losing a a drive with a few gigabytes of information is fairly inconvenient, but not the end of the world. Losing a drive with a terabyte of information, however, could prove more than a temporary annoyance. For frequent computer users, preventing disk errors/data loss is necessarily a high priority.

Caring For Your Hard Disks

The easiest way to deal with disk errors and data loss is to prevent such situations in the first place. There are a number of basic steps a user can take to increase the 'health' of a hard disk:

1. Avoid Heat
Heat is the bane of hard drives packed tightly into computer cases since the days of the first Apple PCs. Exposure to high levels of heat, especially for extended periods of time, takes a significant toll upon all hardware, and hard drives are no different. It is essential for users to make sure that no disks are being unduly exposed to high temperatures.

In order to accomplish this, the inside of the case needs proper air flow. Dust should be regularly cleaned out, the cables and wires should all be neatly run and, when possible, tied so that they use the least amount of space necessary. Keep the disks as low in the case as can be—the vertical temperature differential from the heat rising in this case may not be significant, but every bit helps. The disk must also have a reasonable empty space around it so that heat can dissipate more easily. This is especially important in the case of multiple individual drives, where the system as a whole should be set inside a case big enough to allow spacing between the different drives. Packing them one atop the other means that the heat given off from the bottom drive works its way up to the other drives, causing great heat stress. If a smaller case with appropriately closely spaced drives must be used, be especially considerate of air flow and place the system in an area as cool as possible (for example, avoid tight spaces, proximity to heat vents, etc.).

2. Change the Windows Power Settings
Change the Windows Power settings so that the hard drives do not power off when not being actively used. This may sound counterintuitive, but it's actually healthier for the disk to be 'on' (that is, spinning) at all times. When the hard drive is 'on', the magnetic platters on which data is stored are set to spin about the disk's central spindle, much as a record spins on its player. As the platters spin, a read/write head (like the 'needle' of a' record player') hovers above, moved about the platter's surface area by swiftly moving mechanical access arms, so that the head can access information very quickly no matter its physical location on the platter.

Windows sets itself to spin down the drives after X number of inactive minutes solely as a means of conserving a small measure of power. This is extremely stressful for the drive mechanisms; having to spin down and back up constantly places a much bigger load on the read/write head, the arms, and all of the other mechanical partsar more than simply spinning at a constant rate indefinitely would. Moreover, hard drive failure is most likely to occur as the drive powers on/spins up—setting a power down interval of even a half an hour is exponentially increasing the chance of potentially fatal moments. To avoid hard drive failure, the drives should be set to run constantly, with the sole exception being laptop computers running on battery power, where energy conservation is vital. In every other case, keep them going.

To change the spin-down settings:
• Right-click on the Windows desktop and select 'Properties'.
• Select the 'Screen Saver' tab at the top of the Display Properties window
• Hit the "Power…" button at the bottom right.
• From the pull down menu for "Turn off hard disks", select "Never". Ideally do the same for the 'System Standy' option at the bottom (System Standby may be at times convenient, but it also spins down the disks).

3. Defragment the Hard Disk Semi-Regularly
As files are created and edited, accumulating in greater volume upon the drive, file fragmentation increases towards a hopeless morasse. Due to the way in which Windows writes file information to the disk, any given file is stored in a varying number of pieces physically remote from each other on the surface of the platter. So when Windows calls for access to one of these fragmented files, the read/write head must scurry about the area of the platter, reading and gathering each individual piece until the whole can be reconstructed. Every file action, from creation to saving to editing to deletion, works to further fragment the disk data. Each increase in fragmentation results in an increase in the amount of work the access arm and the read/write head must perform in order to retrieve files.

Not only does hard drive access time increase, but more and more wear and tear is put upon the drive mechanisms. Though unusual, it's certainly not unheard of for just that sort of stress upon the drive heads/arms to result in a strain too great for the drive to bear, causing the disk fails and becomes almost, if not entirely, unrecoverable. Defragmentation is a good idea, then, and Windows is good enough to include a native utility designed to achieve that end.

To run the Windows Defragmenter Utility:
• Go to the Start Menu/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools/ folder and click on 'Disk Defragmenter', or simply execute 'Run' from the Start Menu, type in 'dfrg.msc', and hit Enter.
• Analyze the appropriate drive (you'll need at least 15% of the total space free to defragment), then finally select "Defragment" and Windows will restructure the file system. Depending on fragmentation and disk size, the process can take many hours, so make sure to run it at a time when you won't need to utilize the system for such a period.

4. Give Constant Power to Your System
Ensure that your system receives a constant, steady supply of power. As in other respects, disk drives are particularly sensitive here. Even a small drop or surge in power becomes a potentially devastating disk-damaging situation—stronger variances (storms, etc.) are appropriately more risky.

While surge protectors are fairly standard these days, the vast majority are glorified power outlet strips—which, despite any claims that may litter the product packaging, are all but useless when it comes to actual protection. It's prudent to spend the money for a quality protective unit; an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) is far superior to any surge protector, albeit more expensive. The extra cost is well worth it, though, since even the most basic UPS will act to deliver a steady flow of power to your system, despiteany line variance, which could very well save a user from losing all manner of important data (that has to be worth fifty bucks or so!).

5. Invest in a Backup Drive
While this option isn't about preventing hard disk failure, it is perhaps the best method for preventing data calamities: Invest in a second drive as a backup/mirror for the primary drive. Cost per gigabyte is ever-decreasing, so purchasing a pair of indentical hard disks is a fairly viable option at this point.

Users can simply copy the most vital/important files (documents, etc.), onto each disk, or, if there is a wealth of data that would be painful to lose, users have the option of setting the pair of drives to operate in what is called a 'RAID' mirror. A full explanation of this is beyond the scope of this article, but basically a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is a method by which separate drives can be treated by the system as a single unit. Here we're interested in 'mirroring' mode, in which two or more drives set in a mirror RAID are treated identically by the Operating System. For all intents and purposes, there is only one drive, but every bit of information that's written to the first drive is written in the same manner to the second. While there is only half the space available as compared to using both drives independently, in the not unlikely event that the primary disk fails in some manner, no data is lost. The second disk, a mirror copy of the first, is there to save the day.

Many systems these days include RAID capabilities for hard disks. In the event that a system doesn't, expansion cards that enable RAIDs are cheap and readily available. The entire process is somewhat advanced, but there's no surer method available to the average user when it comes to safeguarding data.

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