When will your hard drive fail?

One storage provider compiles failure rates for major hard drive vendors and a pattern emerges.

It’s only appropriate that I found a story idea on storage failure right as I experienced the worst hard drive failure of my life. Long story short, after two days of agony, I lost some downloaded files, nothing I can’t live without, and my entire Outlook contact list. Years of building up contacts, all gone. So it was a brutal weekend. In 25 years of PC ownership I’ve never experienced a drive failure anywhere near close to this.

I had taken reliability for granted. But apparently drives can be unreliable and one storage provider’s experience has found that certain brands are particularly bad. Backblaze, a cloud storage provider, has more than 44,000 drives in its data centers. So it sees failures at a much higher rate than any of us. Because of this, it has allowed the company to put together analytics on drive failure by size and brand.

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The short answer is that Seagate Barracudas have ridiculous failure rates, HGST has the best, and 3TB drives are time bombs. I’ll break it down.

While the other drive makers had failure rates in the single digits, Seagate’s Barracuda line was well into double digits. The Barracuda 7200.11 1.5TB had a 31.68% failure rate, easily the highest, followed by the Barracuda 7200.14 3TB at 26.65% and the Barracuda LP 1.5TB at 12.16%.

Western Digital also had a spotty performance, with its 3TB WD Red (designed for NAS systems) failing at a rate of 12.87%, the 4TB plain model experiencing a 9.01% failure rate and the 6TB Red failing at 7.77%.

HGST, the former Hitachi hard disk division acquired by Western Digital acquired in 2012, had the best rate by far. Its Deskstar 7K3000, another 3TB drive, had a failure rate of 2%. That was the highest rate. The Megascale 4000.B had a failure rate of a mere 0.39%. But it’ll cost you. The Megascale 4000.B is $320 on NewEgg.com, compared to $129-$159 for 4TB drives from Seagate and Western Digital.

Is it worth it? After this weekend, I’d have to say yes.

Something went really wrong for Seagate. Its 3TB drives were a disaster for BackBlaze, with over 40% of the models failing throughout 2014. In 2013, the failure rate was just 9.6%, so it seems the problems took a while to build, as the chart below shows.

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And it's not just BackBlaze experiencing problems. Anecdotally, I've heard more complaints online about Seagate 3TB than any other drive. And Apple has had to offer replacement drives for iMacs with 3TB drives as well. It also got a bad batch of Seagate drives and now will have to eat the cost for replacements.

In my case, I had my Seagate Barracuda 2TB drive for just over two years, so it seems to have fallen right in line with the failure rate of the 3TB drives, but I hardly drove that thing as hard as a cloud storage provider would. Most of the time it was in sleep mode. Now here’s the funny thing: BackBlaze’s experience with the 2TB Seagate drives was flawless. It had zero failures.

I’ve done some reading online. One of the theories behind the abysmal Seagate 3TB rate is that they might be among the drives that were made in China rather hastily after the flooding in Thailand a few years back. If you recall, many hard drive makers are in Thailand, including Seagate, and that Biblical flooding they experienced in 2012 caused a major hard drive shortage for months. Production was moved out of Thailand for a while, and in the disruption, who knows what happened to quality control.

But that doesn’t explain why other 3TB drives failed as well, unless the failures are due to part or parts common to those drives and from the same supplier. BackBlaze didn’t go into which part failed, only that the drive failed.

However, I can believe that something happened to the HDD supply chain because of the recent drop in failures. The second chart runs through the end of 2014, but BackBlaze reports that 3TB failures are still dropping. That would make sense if there was a bad batch of parts post-flooding, and by now they are out of the system.

One thing is for certain: I’m buying an HGST drive after this.

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