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Who Killed My Hard Drive?

University study examines the causes and costs of hard drive failure

You've heard the threat before: A virus or Trojan could infect your PCs and wreck their hard drives. But how often does it really happen -- and how bad is the damage?

A new university study suggests that hard-drive-killing attacks launched by hackers are actually pretty rare -- but when they do occur, they can be more costly than most companies think.

The study, published last quarter by professors at the University of Pepperdine and commissioned by data recovery vendor Deepspar Technologies, looks at the causes of hard drive failure and offers insights on just how "fatal" a fatal drive error can be.

Aside from physical theft, hard drive failure is the most common cause of data loss on PCs, the study says, accounting for 38 percent of data loss incidents. In about 30 percent of these cases, the loss of access is the result of drive problems, where corruption of the media makes the data unreadable.

Software corruption, which is the usual path used by hackers and viruses to "crash" a hard drive, only causes data loss in about 13 percent of cases, according to the study. Such incidents are only slightly more frequent than drive losses caused by human error (12 percent), the study says.

But while remote attacks may cause fewer drive crashes than many users believe, the cost of those crashes may be higher than many executives expect, the study states.

The IT costs associated with a drive failure are fairly easy to measure, the study says. In cases where the data can be restored by an in-house staffer -- which happens about 40 percent of the time -- the cost is about $350. If the drive has to be sent out to a recovery service, the cost is around $1,500. On average, then, the IT cost of a failed drive is about $1,150, the study says.

But many companies fail to factor in the cost of lost productivity, the study observes. If you add up the average time it takes to restore data on a failed drive and multiply it by the cost of the employees affected, there is a lost productivity cost of about $1,750 per drive failure, the researchers say. And if you add productivity costs to IT costs, the average drive failure cost is about $2,900 -- assuming you can recover the data from the damaged drive at all.

If a hacker or virus does successfully crash a hard drive, the study recommends caution in trying to recover the data internally. "Non-professional tools and system software (e.g., chkdsk) often fix errors by overwriting the file system on the drive," the study says. "Though this may repair the file system, it permanently destroys the data." About 15 percent of all non-recoverable data loss situations were created by prior non-professional data recovery attempts, the study says.

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