Beware The Ubiquitous Portable Hard Drive!

Here are some simple words of wisdom from one who has for decades made use of all sorts of portable magnetic media. Don’t trust it!

This simple message, a public service of sorts, was brought to mind when my wife recently came to me with a small portable USB hard drive in her hands. She had just plugged it into her PC which had responded by asking if she wanted the drive to be formatted? The implication being that it was not already formatted!

Of course, the unhappy little drive in question is a 320 GB 2.5″ USB drive that she had been using to shuttle all manner of valuable bytes from here-to-there.

This disk had been grumpy once before, and while she had not lost any files at the time, the experience had inspired her to go out and buy another portable drive, but not take this one out of service.

Still, she was worried that there were some files on the older portable that she might not have copied to someplace safer. My role here is to point out that such portable hard drives are inherently unsafe, and guide both her and you to a definition of “someplace safer.”

It’s not that the hardware itself is somehow less safe or reliable than the drive inside your desktop. The truth is, these are often the very same type of disks. The issue is the fact that portable drives are so very, well….portable. They suffer the physical abuse of being moved around a lot. They get bumped, dropped, left in hot cars and used as drink coasters in ways that a desktop drive will never experience.

Ultimately, they obey one of the most fundamental rules of existence…they die. Hopefully they reach this point having issued at least a little warning so that you can get your valuable data off them onto someplace safer.

Just as you don’t usually live in your car, you shouldn’t be using such portable media as a permanent place for your data to reside. Like a car, portable drives are more properly used as a way to ferry the data about from location to location. Once at a particular location you copy your most treasured bytes onto some thing stationary, or at least less likely to be dropped into a toilet.

This strategy by its nature means having multiple copies of your data on different devices. From this arises the need to synchronize drives, copying only the changed files to or from your portable device. Microsoft has a free tool called SyncToy that I like for this task.

SyncToy makes the process essentially painless. I’m told that it was created by a Microsoft developer who wanted a rational way to backup his library of images. I can believe that. Being a two DSLR household we have many thousands of digital photos in our family library.

If you live by this little mantra that I am prescribing you will be doing something that some people don’t bother with anymore…maintaining a backup of your valuable data. You’ll have copies of the data in each location, and on the portable itself. That is, to quote Ms Stewart, “A Good Thing.”

Of course there are many variants on this scheme. If you have the requisite bandwidth you might prefer to use online file storage. I myself use DropBox to great effect. It’s a wonderful way to sync files between various systems. In my case “My Documents” are sync’d between my desktop, laptop and netbook.

There are some types of data that are simply too large or potentially too personal to be accommodated using online storage. This material we store on a Network Attached Storage device (NAS.) I prefer a NAS with RAID5 storage so that we are protected from the failure of any single drive.

Some people feel that RAID5 arrays are themselves unreliable. The fact that they have multiple drives increases the statistical likelihood of failure, their reliance on a single RAID controller rendering them even more vulnerable. This has not been my experience, but that does not invalidate theirs. YMMV.

If you have truly precious data on your NAS you need to back it up periodically. This presents a significant problem, long past being practical with optical media like DVD-Rs. Remember also that DVD-Rs don’t last forever.

To what type of media does one practically backup a 5 or 10 GB NAS? As far as I can see the only workable solution is another NAS, or perhaps some large portable hard drives dedicated to the task. Hopefully ones that are not routinely carried around.

Our NAS has a couple of E-SATA ports making it possible to back it up in sections to several large SATA  drives in external drive housings. One nice thing about the big, clunky, external drive enclosures with their own power supplies….you probably won’t want to cart them around very much.

To revisit my original assertion; if your only copy of a critically important file is on a little portable hard drive…that file is doomed. Consider how you use portable drives carefully and keep your data backed up.

Finally, should you find yourself with a dead hard drive and you absolutely must recover some of its contents I suggest that you contact Ontrack Data Recovery. The service is not cheap, but they’re very good.

  • The point is that if you are serious about securing your valuable and sometime irreplaceable files you needs to have them in 3 locations and one of those locations should be off site. Back up hard drives work fine, but they are not really secure as they could be stolen, crash or your house could burn down or destroyed in a natural disaster like a hurricane or wild fire. Can you say California, Texas, New Orleans, Florida or just about any plance on the east or west coast.

    • I really didn’t want to get into the larger set of issues that is backup strategies. My intent was to point out that small portable hard drives are inherently problematic.

  • Talk about “eating my own dog food!” I just smoked a 500 GB portable drive this afternoon. I needed a USB hub to add to a server that only has 2 USB ports. I used the wrong power supply and it smoked my little drive. Tick-tick-tick of death after that.

    Fortunately everything on the drive had been copied to our NAS. I ordered a new drive that’ll be here on Friday.