"Wow. That really, really sucked."It wasn't quite the Blue Screen of Death, as everyone so fears. But after my laptop crashed, on the restart I saw the message "Operating System Not Found," and I knew it was going to be a bad day. Sounds emanating from the area in which my hard drive usually hums along quietly reminded me of days long gone when my grandparents used to make popcorn -- the old-fashioned way. Pop, pop, pop, click, click, pop, click, pop, pop, pop, click, pop, click. I'm no computer expert, but right then and there I had a sick feeling that I had lost everything.To top it off, it was a Monday, and this was the second time in three years that a hard disk had failed me. (The first failure, however, wasn't as catastrophic as this one because that was a loaner laptop, and I had very little important content on it.)A frantic call to our IS department confirmed my worst fears -- that the hard drive and everything else important on my ThinkPad was cooked -- applications, articles, contact and source information (loads of e-mail addresses and phone numbers), research reports, bookmarks, music, photos, addresses. Done. Gone. I was desperate: I put the laptop outside into the chilly air in an attempt to bring the hard disk back to life. Nothing.I work remotely, so the next morning I drove into CIO's headquarters. All Chris (my IS guy) needed to hear were those horrible clicking sounds, and he pronounced the laptop D.O.A. We talked about this, and he said, simply, "Hard drives just die." There was really nothing I could do about it.The PCStats website says, "The simple fact is that hard disks are mechanical devices with moving parts, and as such, will fail eventually and inevitably." (It also includes an easy to understand overview of this critical part of your computer, which is helpful when, as an IS staffer, you need to explain to a user what happened and why.) Though I accepted my fate, it still infuriated me. I mean, without any warning, the thing just died. I wondered what else that would be like. Would that be like driving down the highway at 65 mph, and the car's engine just seizing up. ("The thing about engines is, they just die," I envisioned my mechanic saying.) A jet engine choking in mid-flight? I guess, in retrospect, what I was hoping for was a warning sign of the bad things that were to come. The PCStats article lists a couple of things to look out for:Frequent but irregular crashes, especially while booting up Windows. Frequent and cryptic error messages while performing typical activities like moving files. Folder and file names that have been scrambled and changed. Disappearing files and folders. Really looooong waits to access folders and files. Hard disk is silent for a long period after you request data by opening a file or folder. Garbled output from open files or printing. Hard drive grinds away constantly because of noisy bearings.So Chris spent his day installing a new hard disk in my old laptop, trying to recreate the computing environment that I had cocooned myself in over those last two years -- all the right software applications, all the right music, all the right bookmarks, all the right folders. I knew where everything was and how it worked. Now, I'd have to start over. (I did ask Chris for the fried hard disk so that I could send it to a data recovery specialist. I figured I'd give that a shot. More on that later.)Two things I learned out of this nasty experience: 1. Always back your stuff up on some kind of external storage device -- whether it's the company network or other connected backup device. (The one positive effect my experience had was that after telling everyone my alarming story, almost everyone immediately backed up their work on our server.)2. It's not a question of if your hard disk will die. It's a question of when.Don't let yourself or your users end up like me.