It Can Happen to You: My Photo Hard Drive Just Failed

It Can Happen to You: My Photo Hard Drive Just Failed

In between my music and photography work, I have a lot of hard drives. But even so, I've never had one fail, until just two days ago. It went without warning: no crunching sounds, no notifications, just a red light.

The Story

It's been a rough few weeks for me computer-wise. I was editing client photos earlier this weekend, and all was fine. Then, when I turned on my computer Sunday, I received the following message: "Your device has a RAID configuration issue." I figured it was something a restart might fix, but I peered at my enclosure (it's hidden behind my monitor) and saw solid red lights (never a good sign). I shut down my computer, then restarted it and watched the enclosure as the soft white light blinked on, thinking all was fine, only to watch it suddenly switch to solid red again. I opened the drive utilities app and saw the dreaded status telling me one of the drives had failed and needed to be replaced.

Thankfully, I use two 8 TB hard drives in a single enclosure in RAID 1 for my photos. RAID isn't a backup solution, but it did allow me to immediately switch over to the redundant drive and continue working. Everything is backed up with Backblaze (at $5 a month, I really can't recommend them enough) and on another drive in my apartment, but even so, the thought of losing literal terabytes of not just data but hard work, creativity, and memories was sobering.

The 3-2-1 Strategy

If you're never heard of the 3-2-1 strategy, it's the best way to back up your data. It goes like this: at the minimum, you have three copies of your data, two of which are local and one of which is offsite. So, for example, my current setup is:

  • Main external hard drive: My photos live on an 8 TB external hard drive in RAID 1 configuration with an identical drive. I do not count the RAID configuration as a backup; it simply makes it very easy to get back up and running if a drive fails.
  • NAS: I have a second external hard drive attached to my router. My computer automatically backs up the photos drive to that drive. I prefer it this way because my router is in another room on another circuit, so I do get at least some isolation between the two local drives (imagine a burst pipe in the ceiling pouring on both if they were on the same desk). 
  • Backblaze: Every night, my computer syncs to Backblaze, so my offsite backup is always up to date. The initial backup took about 40 days, but if that's too long for you, you can send them a hard drive of your data. 

With this method, you can easily get up and running again if your local drive fails, and if something catastrophic happens, you have the offsite backup. And I can't stress the importance of an offsite backup enough. It doesn't matter if you have 500 copies; if they're all in the same place and a fire/flood/theft occurs, you're done for. If your Internet connection is slow, another option is buying a backup drive that you bring home every few weeks or so, then store elsewhere, such as an office or relative's house. At $5 a month and with the benefit of real-time backups, Backblaze is a no-brainer for me, but if your connection speed precludes its use, bringing home an extra external drive every few weeks isn't a bad alternative. 

Yes, the extra hard drives and subscription services add cost to the equation. Nonetheless, the thought of losing my work is terrifying enough that I'll gladly pay that extra cost, and I definitely recommend you do too. 

Lead image by Pixabay user 422737, used under Creative Commons.

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Anonymous's picture


① Clearly you cannot comprehend.

② Clearly you cannot comprehend.

③ Clearly you cannot comprehend.

④ Irrelevant, non-expert comment.

⑤ Clearly you cannot comprehend.

…skipping the rant…. (because, clearly you cannot comprehend).

«The fact that you are now having to include the word solution….»

When were the words, ‘backup solution’ first used regarding the term, ‘RAID’? When the author had said, “RAID isn't a backup solution….” It was the third time he used the word, ‘RAID,’ and the FIRST time he used the word, ‘backup,’ which he did in conjunction with the word, ‘solution.’

Clearly you cannot comprehend.

The real points of the article are Ⓐ Get a backup solution, and Ⓑ RAID is not a backup solution.

Anonymous's picture

I’m honestly impressed with the level of effort you go into to maintain and defend your ignorance.

This is some next level stupidity!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Question about Backblaze. Is it actually unlimited, or is it one of those unlimited where the fine print actually indicates X gigabytes Is what they mean by "unlimited?" I already back everything up in quadruplicate, including off site, but would be nice to have a cloud backup as well. But I've got roughly 20TB and counting, so not sure if that would still be $5/month?

Alex Cooke's picture

Truly unlimited! I've got somewhere around 6 TB with them and pay $5 a month.

Anonymous's picture

Wait, are you saying you don't have off-site backup?

Anonymous's picture

Attitude. Careful.

I was asking: is the only backup you don't have with your machine "off-site", or is "off-site backup" the only type you don't use?

Anonymous's picture

“If a backup is not with me, or more specifically at the location of my computer, then where else would it be if not off-site.”

On a drive in another room or floor of your house, genius. Where it could still be affected by a fire or other disaster.

So you don’t have off-site back-up? Because you said earlier you “obviously understand what is required for a good backup system.”

You obviously don’t. Spend more time listening to people who know what they’re talking about, rather than pretending to be knowledgeable about something you’re not.

Anonymous's picture

Your response explains a good deal about your lack of understanding of backup systems. A backup can be on-site yet not directly connected to your computer system (e.g. a portable drive physically stored in the home).

You don’t know the difference between on-site and off-site backup, you claim to understand what a good backup system is yet you don’t actually practice it, and you have no ability to differentiate between technical terms and simplistic definitions. There is an important technical distinction between redundancy data and backup which you continue to ignore. How shockingly foolish.

This conversation hit a brick wall (and a thick head). I’m not continuing it any further; it’s pointless.

Best of luck with your backup. You have a lot to learn.

Jon Kellett's picture

I'd like to add that whilst a NAS is a good way to add resilience, thought is required if you want to do it well.

I strongly recommend only selecting a NAS that supports either BTRFS or ZFS. This will provide features like CoW and snapshots, which will give you a better chance of getting your file back if you accidentally overwrite it. Don't forget to ensure that the system regularly does a scrub. These terms may sound intimidating at first, but they're easy enough to understand with a few minutes reading.

Bit rot. A quick read on Wikipedia is enough to give you nightmares! Spinning rust (HDD), SSDs and CF cards are all vulnerable to some extent. Suffice to say that sometimes a drive can't read the data without error, even though modern drives have heroic abilities to correct data reads.

Today, most consumer drives are rated 10 to the 14th power regarding their Unrecoverable Read Error Rate. That means that there is a _chance_ that you'll get a read error that can't be corrected every 12.5 TB of data. So with a 4 TB drive, if you read the entire drive more than 3x, there is a _chance_ you'll get a read error that the drive can't automatically correct.

What this means in practical terms is that if you have a really large array, there's a very real possibility that it will fail to rebuild when a drive fails, simply due to unrecoverable read errors. To be fair though, this is not usually an issue unless you have many TB of storage.

On single drives, that's not to say that if some of your data was corrupted with a non-recoverable read error you'd be left with a useless file - If it's just one bit flipped, you probably won't notice the corruption.

Nowadays I have several backups. I have my NAS with two hd.
I have a backup on a second harddisk. I have a backup on an external HD and I have a copy in the cloud.
In the past when I had to make backup on RW DVD's, I lost an entire year of pictures (all backups were corrupt) and I swore to do a better job in the future. Lately I erased all my pictures on my HD (tired, the flu, and a glass of red wine too many) because I delete the Lightroom catalogue (yeah daft, I know) and I was very glad to have a uptodate backup.

Joe Healey's picture

I'm going to start the Router/External outline you mention above. Been a Backblaze user since last month. 20 days or so for initial backup, but sleeping better for....$5 bucks a month! Seriously!

Jeff Colburn's picture

My backup system is a little easier than Alex uses.

My files are on my computer. Once a month they get backed up to an onsite external drive. The next day I bring my offsite drive to the office, back it up overnight, then take it back to its offsite location. If I put anything on my computer between the backups, I back it up onto a flash drive until my monthly backup.

My way is a little less secure than Alex uses, but it's worked well for the past 12 years.

Have Fun,

PS On Facebook last week a photographer and artist posted that he had everything on a RAID drive, but a power surge ran through his house and fried both drives. He's now raising $2,000 to have a recovery company pull his data from the drives.

The other drive will die shortly