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How can hard drives repair themselves?

As you know, hard drives are a combination of sophisticated electronic and mechanical systems that incorporate a number of specialized motors and electro-mechanical components to read and write data. Hard drive technology has substantially advanced in the past 10 years. In fact, hard drives are designed to manage themselves in addition to reading and writing data. Hard drives today use a number of algorithms to verify data on the drive and also maintains a ‘Defect Management’ list internally that constantly monitors their own health and performance . If a sector is beginning to fail, the hard drive’s electronics will remove that sector from use. In addition to this, S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) circuitry has been incorporated on many hard drives and is used to monitor all of the internal systems.

Despite these safeguards, hard drives can fail. There can be a number of reasons for hard drive failure, for instance physical damage can result when the hard drive or case is jarred while operating or even when powered off. Power spikes or fluctuations can damage the electronics or corrupt the data on the drive. Internal mechanical parts can seize up due to high temperatures if the drive does not have enough airflow to keep the unit cool.

A common misconception about data recovery is that repairing hard drives means replacing parts. If only it were that easy! Data recovery is always changing— manufacturers are constantly using different mechanical designs. Today’s hard drives have no room for errors when it comes to platter and head alignment. The tolerances are so exacting that hard drive manufacturers even design ways to keep the Base-Casting Assembly, where all the components are attached to, from shifting due to high temperature situations.

For instance, one hard drive manufacturer of high performance SCSI based drives actually designs their Base-Casting Assembly with pre-stress points. The assembly does not line up from corner to diagonal corner—it’s pre-torqued. When the casting assembly heats up, the unit actually twists back (thermal expansion) into a true line-up from corner to corner. With the byte-density of most large hard drives today being 4gb to 6gb per square inch, absolute precision is required for these high capacity and high speed drives to operate reliably. Hard disk manufacturers are working to increase how many bytes can be squeezed into a square inch.

The mechanical precision of today’s hard drives makes head assembly replacement nearly impossible without specialized tools. Platter removal is dangerous and will affect how the drive reads the sectors. As previously mentioned if just one component is out of alignment, the drive will not find the required sectors. If the hard disk electronics cannot find the sectors requested by the controller, it may endlessly try to find those sectors or it will shut down the unit.