July 2010

The Backup Plan, Part One: Awareness

In the past, Iíve written articles praising computer-based music playback. I love the technology, and particularly enjoy two things about it: the freedom to play music recorded at resolutions higher than the Compact Discís "Red Book" limit of 16-bit word lengths sampled at 44.1kHz, and the ability to download new music and hear it now.

But that doesnít mean this new technology is faultless or foolproof. Depending on your computer system, hi-rez playback can be tricky to set up, at least in comparison to popping a CD in a CD player, and the whole approach to playing downloaded files should be done with caution -- if youíre not careful and your computer fails, you could lose your entire music collection in the blink of an eye. 

The CD, while not indestructible, is an extremely durable storage device; the computer hard drives we rely on for the storage of music files arenít nearly as tough. Sooner or later, each of those drives will fail, either because itís damaged or because it simply wears out. When it does, the drive will more than likely have to be replaced, and youíll lose whatever data are on it -- including your music collection, if thatís where youíve stored it. So backing up your media is critical. But to better assess the risk, you need to understand just how fragile hard drives are. 

Todayís hard drives are capable of storing enormous amounts of data at very low cost. Itís now easy to find, for only about $100, an external hard drive that plugs into one of your computerís USB ports and can hold a terabyte of data. One terabyte (TB) is 1024 gigabytes (GB), and 1GB is 1024 megabytes (MB). A CD can hold about 700MB, which means that a 1TB drive can store the equivalent of about 1500 CDs. However, that 1500 CDsí worth of data is being stored on a magnetic disc spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute, and with a read head that hovers perilously close to its surface. Vibration or shock can damage the drive in an instant, and simple wear and tear means that even the most durable hard drives wonít last forever. You donít expect your car to last indefinitely, do you? Donít expect your hard drive to, let alone the rest of your computer. 

One way to reduce the risk is to use higher-quality hard drives that are less prone to failure. Even these, of course, will eventually fail, but a good one should last longer. You can read all kinds of articles about which ones are best, but Iíve found little consensus on which brands, let alone models, are the most reliable; in fact, some of the findings contradict my own experience. For what itís worth, Iíve had the best success with Western Digital drives. Six out of six Western Digital drives Iíve purchased in the last three years are still working today. Iíve had far less success with LaCie and Seagate. Two of three LaCie drives have failed on me, and two of four Seagates have failed, all within the first year of use. It didnít matter that the drives that failed had warranties and I was able to replace them at no cost; when they failed, everything Iíd stored on them was gone. 

You can also reduce the risk by using more advanced hard-drive technology. The most popular is a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Discs (RAID), which can improve hard-drive reliability and performance. RAID systems can be configured in a variety of ways, but basically, the technology revolves around using multiple discs to repetitively (i.e., redundantly) store data; if a drive inside fails, it can be replaced with no loss of data. If you saw I Am Legend, Will Smithís character, Robert Neville, stored all his precious data on RAID drives for their greater reliability. 

But RAID technology, while worthwhile, doesnít entirely eliminate risk. The problem is that all the data are still stored in one place -- not on one drive or disk, but in the same physical place -- wherever the RAID system is situated. If the entire RAID-based unit is damaged, thereís no recovery. Near the end of I Am Legend, Neville is forced to blow up his lab; when he does, every one of those redundant, inexpensive discs blows up along with it. RAID technology eliminates the problem of failed individual drives, but canít provide a safeguard when the entire system is damaged or destroyed. Neville would have been better off had he had a more comprehensive backup plan, regardless of the drive quality or technology he used. 

For a long time, Iíve praised the advent of computer-based playback, and now, Iíve alerted you to one of its serious pitfalls: the very real possibility that, in the case of equipment failure, you could lose all of your music data. Next month, Iíll talk about how I back up my own data so that itís safe even if my entire house blows up. Iíll also discuss what some of our writers and some industry personnel do to protect their musical assets. As Paul Simon sang, "There must be fifty ways to leave your lover." There are more ways than that to safeguard your data. Weíll teach you about a few of them. 

. . . Doug Schneider