3 signs your hard drive may be about to fail (and what to do if it does)

Drives don’t last forever. Here’s how to know when one’s about to fail.

Electronics eventually fail. Everything has a finite lifespan, including hard drives installed inside your PC or NAS. Thanks to the inclusion of sensors and other monitored metrics, it’s possible to detect when a hard drive may be about to fail.

The best-case scenario would be the hard drive failing over time as opposed to immediately. This would allow you to either swap it out and rebuild a RAID or extract data beforehand. Here are a few signs to determine this and what to do if a drive does indeed fail.

Sluggish drive performance

Even when using the best NAS drives, you’ll notice a drop in performance over time as the parts start to wear and age. The better the NAS drive, the better the endurance and the longer it should last before calling it quits.

Perform data transfer tests on your drive to check it against the manufacturer’s rated speeds. If you notice a drop in responsiveness or overall performance, it could mean an issue with a specific part of the hard drive.

Hard drive SMART test results

It’s possible to run a self-monitoring, analysis, and reporting technology (SMART) test on hard drives on a PC or NAS. This will show various metrics and whether these fall within the expected results. If not, it’s a sign the drive may be on its way out (or have a defect or two from the factory).

We recommend performing a SMART test once a month and when issues are detected, make notes on the affected drive and consider options. Should it continue to worsen, we’d consider replacing it with a spare sooner and rebuilding the RAID.

Unexpected audible operation

Synology DiskStation DS220j
Synology DiskStation DS220j. (Source: NAS Master)

Hard drives, unlike the best NAS SSDs, make some noise while in operation. When not reading or writing, you should hear an audible hum from the motor spinning the platters. When you’re writing or reading data, some clicking noises may be heard from the head as it rapidly swings to and fro.

Vibrations may also be present, especially if no rubber mounts are used between the drive and chassis. So with all this noise, what sounds should you be concerned about?

  • Scratching or grinding — When hearing a scratch or grinding noise as the head moves to read or write data, you should shut down the device immediately. Continued operation could damage the platters and data extraction should commence on the next boot.
  • Irregular vibrations — Such noise is usually fine and expected from spinning motors, when one is starting to show signs of wear, you may notice irregularities in the sounds emitted as the drive is in operation.
  • Frequent clicking — A click sound can be produced by the drive once the head parks or the system shuts down. If you continue to hear clicks throughout, this may indicate a problem with the head.

How long should a hard drive last?

That’s a difficult question to answer! An SSD will last far longer than a hard drive thanks to the omission of spinning parts. The typical hard drive is expected to last up to five years. Pro drives designed for NAS may last up to a decade and are usually covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

My drive is failing! What should I do?

Shut the NAS or PC down immediately to avoid data loss. When using a RAID it should be easy to simply swap out the damaged drive for a new one and rebuild the RAID. By following a regular backup plan, there shouldn’t be a risk of data loss.

By Richard Edmonds

Richard has been covering the technology industry for more than a decade. He has spent more time tinkering inside a PC chassis than anywhere else, for better or worse.

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