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Hard Drive Failure

If you’ve lost data due to a hard drive failure, you might not know where to go to or who to turn to for answers to your most pressing questions, or the help needed to recover your files. Gillware’s experts have been helping victims of hard drive failure and data loss for well over a decade now. We know all of the symptoms of hard drive failures, how to tell if the cause is a hard drive crash, and how to fix a hard drive failure. Not only can we answer your questions, but we can reunite you with your lost data as well, whether it’s family photos, QuickBooks files, or your business’s mission-critical SQL database.

What causes hard drive failure?

When good hard drives go bad

What makes good hard drives go bad? Is it bad parenting? Do they fall in with the wrong crowd? Or are they born bad? Hard drive failure is still a regular occurrence, and we see large numbers of hard disk drive failure incidents being sent to our data recovery experts here at the Gillware data lab in Madison, Wisconsin – a drive can fail due to physical damage, wear and tear, logical failure, or something else.

Typically, failure in a complicated device like a hard drive occurs in the early stages of its use or towards the end of its expected life; this is because properly machined components have a relatively predictable lifespan, but errors in assembly and production can create a scenario where the hard drive is failing shortly after it starts being used. Thus you may expect one of two common failure scenarios when damage to the drive is not a factor: a new hard drive with a problem straight from the manufacturer that fails quickly, or an old drive that, nearing the end of its expected useful life, fails when a component finally breaks from wear and tear. This can be visualized as a “bathtub curve,” so-called due to its resemblance to a bathtub, with a large spike in the number of failures at the beginning and end of the curve.

Need data recovered from a failed hard drive?

Hard disk drives are everywhere; they are found in computers, laptops, servers, storage arrays, DVR, game consoles, and even TVs. The world’s desire for data storage is growing exponentially, and the number of HDD in the consumer market is staggering. An estimated 300 million=+hard drives are sold every 12 months, and the failure rates are usually around 2%. This could mean that over 6 million hard drives fail every year (and that is a conservative estimate).

A 2% failure rate may not sound like much, and to be fair, it does help to highlight how hard disk drive failure rates have improved in the last twenty years, but that figure still suggests that 6 million people may be affected, that is a huge number of clients that may have lost business-critical data, treasured family photographs or years of higher education course work.

Gillware is a leading data recovery company and our expert engineers diagnose, repair, and recover countless numbers of failed hard drives every single year. Hard drive failure is a very common occurrence, and we witness this first hand and we understand the concerns our clients have when suffering a potential data loss scenario, especially if the data is critical or if you have no working backup.

What happens if your hard drive fails?

There are many sensitive components inside your hard disk, and its inner workings are incredibly complex. These drives work on the scale of nanometers, and with such small tolerances, it’s easy for things to go wrong. Manufacturers do try to make these sensitive devices as resilient as possible, but nothing can make a hard drive invulnerable.

There are many causes of a hard disk drive failure, many of which can cause data loss or make your computer trigger a blue screen of death (BSOD). Any mechanical storage device can go bad as a result of sector failure, or a failure of the internal mechanical components. There is even a phenomenon called adaptive drift that can cause disk failure (in which the drive’s performance slides out of line with its initial calibrations).

The buttons on the right will direct you to pages and articles offering more in-depth information for each topic.

Sector Failure

A hard drive crash can cause your computer to fail at boot up and an error message to appear if certain sectors on the hard drive have become corrupted. Sector failure can be triggered by logical or physical failure and can be caused by internal hard disk platter damage. If any logical data, such as the Master Boot Record or the Partition Boot Record on the drive become tarnished, corruption can prevent the computer from being able to find your files.

Such damage is caused by constant wear and tear, or dropping the disk media. Without a working MBR, the media is useless, and no other sector on this disk can be read, and your data is written to multiple sectors on the disk. The good news is that logical errors can be repaired, with the help of powerful analytical tools, data recovery specialists can still salvage the data on your drive.

Corrupted boot sectors may be a symptom of a more severe underlying issue with the drive, such as a failing headstack. A hard drive that won’t boot should be treated delicately, and if the data is important to you the best option is to stop using the disk and send it to a data recovery expert for analysis.

The reason you should stop using the disk is that data is constantly being flushed to disk, and every time data is written to disk, the sector information is updated. If you continue using the disk, you may overwrite your missing data or the critical information Gillware need to have any chance of a successful recovery.

Headstack Failure

The read/write headstack inside a hard disk drive performs one of your drive’s most important tasks: reading and writing your data. They do this using incredibly tiny electromagnets mounted on metal arms. A failed headstack can sometimes result in a “head crash” where the headstock causes damage to the drive’s platters, resulting in scratches that may cause permanent data loss.

One of the warning signs of failed read/write heads is that they will often make clicking noises when the drive is failing. Only skilled data recovery engineers can safely replace a failed HDD headstack. If you have a clicking hard drive on your hands, expect that the drive will fail and find a professional data recovery service to aid you immediately.

Motor Failure

If the platters of your hard drive have stopped spinning, or if your hard drive is making a beeping, stuttering, or chattering noise, the spindle motor may have failed. This brings your hard drive to a grinding halt–sometimes quite literally–and cuts you off from all of the data stored on the drive.

The spindle motor rotates the disk platters at thousands of revolutions per minute, typically 5200 or 7200 RPM for consumer models, and 15,000 RPM for enterprise-class storage. Motors can seize up and burn out if prevented from spinning or if the fluid bearings dry out. Seized spindle motors are especially common with Seagate 7200.11 and 7200.10 model drives.

Hard drive motors are usually very reliable, but the components are very sensitive to shock or physical trauma such as being dropped or banged inadvertently. The motors also dislike certain environments such as moisture or excessive heat. It is also possible for the motor to just wear out after extensive use; we occasionally see this on very old hard drives.

A failed spindle motor must be replaced within a cleanroom environment.

Electrical Shorts & Surges

Any kind of electrical issue is generally bad when it comes to digital media such as hard disks, USB devices, and flash drives. A mechanical hard drive, SSD drives, and in particular SAN/NAS storage systems are extremely sensitive to power fluctuations from a bad power supply or a power surge.

Power surges can cause damage to any computer electronic component. The damage caused by a surge may prevent electricity from flowing into your hard disk–and data from flowing out.

Electrical shorts can also be caused by liquid on the circuit board.

Adaptive Deviation

Even the best hard drives aren’t perfect, and every manufacturer knows this. In its firmware, every hard drive has a list of its imperfections called the adaptive list. The manufacturer calibrates the drive to work by them.

However, in a phenomenon known as “adaptive deviation” or “adaptive drift,” your hard drive’s baseline operating conditions change. This change can be due to little things like the headstack wearing out over time or even things like the drive’s neodymium magnets losing 0.1% of their magnetic flux density over ten years. When the baseline conditions change, but the adaptive list remains the same, the drive is no longer properly calibrated.

In this situation, the drive’s components might still be “healthy,” but its performance has dipped below the threshold for a normal computer to read it. Special, fault-tolerant tools must be employed to access the drive and salvage its data. Since no two drives have the same calibrations, even replacing failed components cannot return a failed hard drive to perfect health.

How can a hard drive be damaged?

The most dramatic instances of hard drive failure that spring to mind are the first three options. But it is old age that causes most hard drive failures and data loss. As you use your hard disk drive over time, all of the components that come together to let you store and access your data slowly break down, just as the human body eventually does. In other words, near the end of your hard drive’s lifespan, it starts needing a cane to walk. Most hard drives fail within a ten-year period unless they are used sparingly.

A hard drive may be damaged by:

Physical Trauma (hard drive dropped, crushed, circuit board shorted, etc.)

Unsafe Environment (excessive heat/cold, fire/water damage, etc.)

Data Corruption (damage to filesystem or glitches in firmware)

Old Age (bearings wearing out, degraded electrical components, etc.)

How can a hard drive be damaged?

The most dramatic instances of hard drive failure that spring to mind are the first three options. But it is old age that causes most hard drive failures and data loss. As you use your hard disk drive over time, all of the components that come together to let you store and access your data slowly break down, just as the human body eventually does. In other words, near the end of your hard drive’s lifespan, it starts needing a cane to walk. Most hard drives fail within a ten-year period unless they are used sparingly.

There is a wide range of hard drive failure symptoms, running the gamut from early warning signs such as frequent freezes and system crashes to signs of irrevocable damage, such as clicking or beeping. In the early stages of a failing hard drive, you might notice your computer freeze and crash more often. Files might appear to be corrupt one moment, yet work fine the next. These are all telltale hard drive failing signs, and you should start backing up important files (if you aren’t already).

While often mistaken for the read/write head, this is actually the spacer that helps the heads stay airborne over the platters. The actual heads are much smaller.
While often mistaken for the read/write head, this is actually the spacer that helps the heads stay airborne over the platters. The actual heads are much smaller.

When your hard drive fails, you might encounter boot errors in your BIOS when starting your computer, or “USB device malfunctioned” error messages when plugging in a failed external drive. You also may notice some physical signs of failure, such as clicking, beeping, or other strange noises.

Why is my hard drive not booting?

If a constant boot error greets you whenever you turn on your computer, your hard drive may be at fault. This error can be due to a corruption of the drive’s boot sector, or more serious physical damage to the device.

Why is my hard drive clicking?

The clicking noise you hear occurs when the read/write heads can no longer read or write. The heads are mounted on an arm that swings back and forth, and when the heads stop functioning, the arm continues to move, producing the noise. The “click of death” often happens because the heads have failed or have been severely damaged. Continuing to run a clicking hard drive without repairs can cause the drive’s condition to worsen considerably, so hard drives exhibiting these symptoms should be sent to a professional data recovery lab immediately.

Learn more about hard drive platters

Why is my hard drive beeping?

A hard drive will beep if something is preventing the platters from spinning. The beeping noise comes from the drive’s spindle motor as it tries to spin the platters. Typically, this symptom occurs when the read/write heads fail to float above the platter surfaces and instead clamp down on them. Only data recovery specialists can safely address this issue.

Learn more about beeping hard drives…

Why isn’t my hard drive spinning up?

One reason a hard drive will not spin up is if electricity cannot flow through its printed control board (PCB). This situation can occur if the circuit board wears out or develops an electrical short, causing drive failure. Common culprits include water damage to the PCB and power surges. Only a professional can successfully repair or replace a failed PCB.

A hard drive will also fail to spin up if its motor is impeded.

Why is my hard drive smoking?

If you can see smoke coming from an external hard drive or from your computer, or smell a burning odor, it is a rare sign that the drive’s PCB has been burned. These burns and shorts that result in drive failure typically occur due to an electrical surge.

How do you fix a hard drive failure?

Unlike other appliances or your car, hard drives are not meant to be repaired after a hard disk failure, partially because rather than being an important device you own, a hard drive is only a container for important information you own. In other words, your data, not the hard disk drive itself, is valuable. Hard drives are easily replaceable commodities, and repairing a hard drive rarely makes sense.

Burn damage to the PCB of a failed hard disk
Burn damage to the PCB of a failed hard disk, the result of a power surge, as seen under a microscope.

The other reason hard drives are not meant to be repaired is due to their inherent complexity. Due to their adaptives, even replacing a hard drive’s failed components will not return it to working order. When hard drive manufacturers recertify broken hard drives, they must re-calibrate the drives and create new adaptive lists, wiping all data from the drives permanently in the process, to give the drives a clean bill of health.

Fixing hard drives requires a clean and contaminant-free environment, as well as a host of the best specialist tools. Only specially-trained expert engineers in a professional data recovery service can repair hard disks safely and effectively. And even then, a repaired hard disk drive will not perform well enough or last long enough for it to be used. After a disk drive failure is repaired, it will only last long enough for data recovery experts to salvage its data.