Hardware Failures 02/01/10

While perusing through Digg, I found it interesting to note that both the Linux and Windows users have something to say about hardware failure issues. I found it interesting, that regardless of software issues, both groups of “observant” users have come to realize that the hardware quality (read that as “robustness” – is there such a word?) may have declined? The Digg entry pointed to this post: “Computing, Even in Linux, is All About Failure“.

It’s just an opinion, but it seems to me that todays hardware is pushed to do more, faster, better, and so on. Given that hardware manufacturers are in the business to make money, it makes me wonder if some other facets of our hardware has not suffered somewhere? Sensitivity to power fluctuations, heat, EMI (electromagnetic interference), ESD (static electricity) maybe? Granted, when I started playing with computers, there was no such thing as cell phones, etc. that could effect computer equipment. And that equipment was no where near as powerful (or sensitive) as today’s equipment.

A case in point, the only reason why I have limited hardware issues (it really is the only reason), is that I operate my hardware in cooler environments (and air clean it regularly). Yet I still have had hardware failures. Also as a very lose guide, hard drives tend to fail (on average) after a few hundred  operating hours. It differs between manufactures, but there’s a bit more understanding on Wikipedia’s “Hard disk failure” post, there they also refer to the “Bathtub Curve” (an engineering aspect that describes decreasing, increasing and constant failure rates). Always make sure you have a backup of your backup (redundancy).

Side note: For those that don’t know me, I’ve been playing with computer’s since the early days, (to consumers at least) of the 1970′s

Case in point, I paid almost $300 for a high end cooling case on one box (and it works great – the sides even, always feel cold when in use). My servers (those on my LAN) operate in an ambient air temperature currently averaging at 16°C (in the summer they are moved and average 20°C).

On the boxes in my work area they average 22°C and I even use an external fan on them to remove radiant heat away from the fan intakes on those boxes, when the temperature goes up. Remember if the fans on your computer exhaust warm air, and then suck it back in, your PC is getting virtually zero cooling!

Granted, this has given me an environment with a lower failure rate than most, and still the odd time I loose a drive, optical drive, power supply (or network card), etc.

What a lot of people don’t realize, I think, is that static (ESD) we do not feel, can still damage components. A case in point for obvious ESD, last winter I was moving one computer, I reached to pick the box up and felt a static jolt. Because it was the case of the unit, I didn’t think it would have been an issue (I’d gotten away with that before). It was an issue, the network card got pooched. Another time I reached for the USB drive and pulled it out, no static or anything was felt, but the moment I touched it, my hard drive failed (because of static) and I could hear the speakers make a brief noise (and the USB drive was dead).

Finally, I’ve come across this again, and again, and again, avoid using a cell phone near your PC. Granted it’s not medical equipment, but the cell still radiates a relatively strong field (EMI) which can interfere with PC components. Given that today’s  hardware is becoming increasing specialized, it has to do more, store more, be faster, use less energy, etc., it’s much, much more sensitive as a result. You can in some circumstances, actually cause a data read and write error if the EMI field interferes with that operation – which over period of several errors (or one big one) can eventually “pooch” data or a file system.

Speaking of ESD… Commonly a static charge (like you get walking across a carpet) is about  the 10000V – 13000V range. That sounds very high, but remember that the amperage is super low. It’s the amperage that causes us (terminal at times) harm, not the voltage.

In winter, when humidity is low and it’s warm (from the heater or furnace) static shocks (ESD) hurt more (we feel that a lot). But it terms of our hardware and how we are able to feel ESD, charges below about 4000v are not felt. You can handle your hardware and never feel any ESD, but still have damaged components from low ESD voltages. Components can be damaged voltages as low as 400 volts!

Often, the component appears fine, but days, weeks, even months later, your computer may freeze up or start exhibiting strange symptoms. Damaged motherboards, memory, hard drives, etc. are generally easier to diagnose if they failed right after after you install it (“DOA”). Unfortunately low voltage ESD can also cause latent damage, by destroying a few microscopic parts out of the millions in a computer’s tiny circuitry. That is virtually almost impossible to diagnose, for us! And… the damage may not cause problems for a long time.

Hard drives are susceptible to being damaged by too much heat, excessive (or strong) vibrations, high humidity, EMI, ESD, RF (any strong microwave or other strong transmission). With an RF source, the amount of energy received falls quickly as the distance from that source increases, depending on the frequency, and the energy output of the source. Cell phones are not high output devices, but shouldn’t really operated to close anything that they could effect. (That’s one reason why hospitals require cell phones to be turned off).

So, remember to take all this into account to safeguard your hardware. Not forgetting to wear your tin foil hat, in front of your monitor, under a blanket, with the lights out…

On a serious note though, the biggest causes of hardware failure I’ve seen both personally and professionally are:

Heat
Dust & Dirt
Static Discharge

Heat being the all out #1 issue in my experience!!!

Why am I writing this post? Because I’m getting a lot of “help me” phone calls and email messages (it happens about this time every year) reporting PC problems, that are found to relate to some piece of hardware failing (or already failed). I hope the above information and advice will help some of you avoid “feeling the pain” of loosing some or all of your data.

Have something to add? Be heard! Please, feel free to add your comments below…

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