WD and Seagate take steps to fix terabyte drives

Storage

Reaching the terabyte mark was an important symbolic step for hard drive makers — a way of saying, "Our drives are so big, we need a new word to describe how big they are!" But that was two years ago, and, as the drives have aged, some problems have come to light. Both Seagate and Western Digital are in the midst of dealing with unexpected problems in their terabyte drives. And both have now commented publicly on the problems. And, happily, both have offered fixes for their respective problems.

SEAGATE

Certain Barracuda 7200.11 drives (as well as the related ES.2 and DiamondMax 22 lines) have developed what The Inquirer unhelpfully calls "a new self-bricking feature", in which otherwise-working drives suddenly stop being recognized after a few months of service. The failure appears to be in the firmware, not the hardware itself, and Seagate has stated that data is not actually lost in the failure — it's just not accessible. Affected users are unlikely to appreciate this hair-splitting, as there is currently no way of making it accessible again, though Seagate says they are "working with customers to expedite a remedy".

For those users whose drives are still working, Seagate has released an updated firmware that disables the self-bricking feature once and for all. They (and we) strongly urge you to upgrade to prevent the possibility of problems in the future. A list of all affected models can be found on Seagate's web site. Seagate's press release follows:

Seagate has isolated a potential firmware issue in limited number of Barracuda 7200.11 hard drives and related SATA drives based on this product platform, manufactured through December 2008. In some unique circumstances, the data on the hard drives may become inaccessible to the user when the host system is powered on.

While we believe that the vast majority of customers will not experience any disruption related to this issue, as part of our commitment to customer satisfaction, Seagate is offering a free firmware upgrade to proactively address those with potentially affected products. This new firmware upgrade corrects compatibility issues that occurred with the firmware download provided on our support website on Jan. 16. We regret any inconvenience that the firmware issues have caused our customers.

To determine whether your product is affected, please visit the Seagate Support web site at http://seagate.custkb.com/seagate/crm/selfservice/news.jsp?DocId=207931

In the unlikely event your drive is affected and you cannot access your data, the data still resides on the drive and there is no data loss associated with this issue. Seagate is working with customers to expedite a remedy.

WESTERN DIGITAL

A less serious issue has been found in certain revisions of Western Digital's popular Green Power series. In fact, the issue is less a bug than a feature that doesn't play well with certain computing environments. Nevertheless, the problem has developed a massive discussion thread in the SPCR forums, so we feel compelled to speak about what we know of the issue.

The problem is this: The Green Power is designed and marketed as a "green" drive, where power efficiency is the primary engineering concern. As part of this concern, the drive is designed to unload the read/write heads after approximately 8 seconds of inactivity. That in itself is not a bad thing — in fact, it's a common attribute of notebook drives, which have different reasons for saving power (battery life). However, certain software (notably, SpeedFan and some distributions of Linux) can cause issues because they access the drive regularly every 10 seconds or every minute or so. This causes a cycle of rapid loading and unloading that is stressful to the drive — far more stressful than "ordinary" use in which the drive is either working steadily or completely idle.

It is worth noting that there are no actual failures attributed to this problem as yet — just a number of drives that are reporting rapid (and unusual) increases in load/unload cycles via the drive's SMART reporting feature. Some drives are approaching the rated specification of 300,000 load/unload cycles after less than a year of ownership. While the drives are extremely unlikely to give up the ghost right as the counter crosses 300,000, exceeding the specification indicates the point where the risk of failure begins to increase.

In some ways, the solution is simple: Don't use software that accesses the drive every 10 seconds. However, for those who can't or won't deal with this on the software level, Western Digital offers a firmware update that either disables the head unload feature or modifies it so that the unload timer is set to longer than 8 seconds (up to 5 minutes is supported). A separate utility is used to control the feature once the new firmware is installed. In either case, the power saving gained by unloading the heads will be lost, but that's probably safer than dealing with potential drive failures down the road. More information about the firmware update (including a new, lower power spin up mode) can be found in this product change notice.

Western Digital's Technical Bulletin on the matter follows:

Symptom: Attribute 193

WD drives are designed to reduce power consumption, in part by positioning the heads into a park position (unloading the heads) and turning off unnecessary electronics, resulting in substantial power savings. WD defines this mode as Idle 3. Some utilities, OS’s, and applications, such as some implementations of Linux, for example, are not optimized for low power storage devices and can cause our drives to wake up at a higher rate
than normal. This effectively negates the power-saving advantages of low-power drives such as WD’s RE2GP and artificially increases the number of load-unload cycles.

The number of systems using such applications and utilities is limited and customers can resolve this symptom by optimizing their systems to not wake up the drives unnecessarily every 10-30 seconds or so, thereby gaining substantial power savings and eliminating superfluous activity.

Affected Models

WD RE2 GP WD1000FYPS-01ZKB0, WD7500AYPS-01ZKB0, WD7501AYPS-01ZKB0

Solution

Most customers, when made aware of the unnecessary activity caused by their systems, have modified their utility, OS, or application to take advantage of WD’s advanced power-saving mode. Other customers have requested a utility to modify the behavior of the drive to wait longer before invoking Idle 3 mode. Although such a change eliminates significant power savings during periods of inactivity, WD has created an update for those
customers wishing to maintain their existing utilities, OS’s, and applications. This update is described in WD's Process Change Notice PCN 2579-701324-A02 and is available through WD's technical support organization, at support.wdc.com/re2gp.

The update also supports a low-power spin-up feature optimized for highly energy efficient, large scale storage applications, which is enabled using a utility also available at the support link above.

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