Backblaze, a company that stores consumer and small business data in the cloud, uses thousands of hard drives from a variety of manufacturers. After crunching data on the real-world performance of more than 27,000 drives from major suppliers including Hitachi, Seagate and Western Digital, Backblaze concluded that some of Seagate’s smaller hard drives are “consistently unreliable.”
After 36 months of use, only 73.5 percent of the Seagate drives were usable, compared to 94.8 percent of the Western Digital drives and 96.9 percent of Hitachi’s, according to Backblaze engineer Brian Beach’s recent blog post.
As you might expect, Seagate says Backblaze’s data is flawed. Seagate’s Brian Ziel said this in an email:
“The data is inconsistent with any other customer data we have received. We absolutely stand behind the quality of our products with a best-in-class warranty, and we relentlessly test our drives for the workloads they were designed to support. In this situation, it appears that desktop class drives and some external drives were purchased and used in enterprise-class workloads – which they were NOT designed or tested for.”
In fact, Backblaze does use consumer drives in its data centers, says Andrew Klein, the company’s marketing director. But that doesn’t mean the data is flawed, according to Klein. He says that all of the drives are used in the same way, under identical conditions, and nearly all (including those from Hitachi) are consumer models. “If Seagate’s argument were valid, all of the drives would fail at about the same rate. But they don’t,” he told me.
Hard drive reliability, whether it’s used in a data center or your home, is absolutely the most important criteria to consider when buying one. It does no good to backup your data to an external hard drive, if that drive fails. So the charge by Backblaze is a serious one.
Backbaze does not paint all Seagate drives with the same brush. Writes Beach: “The Backblaze team has been happy with Seagate Barracuda LP 1.5TB drives. We’ve been running them for a long time – their average age is pushing 4 years. Their overall failure rate isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. The non-LP 7200 RPM drives have been consistently unreliable. Their failure rate is high, especially as they’re getting older.”
Even if Backblaze’s data holds up, it’s hard to know how applicable it is to drives used at home, a much less demanding environment than a data center. And Klein says “we’re not saying (the data) necessarily applies to a consumer setting.”
I then asked him what a consumer should take away from the performance results. “If you have a choice between a Hitachi and a cheaper Seagate drive, ask yourself how much you value the data you’re putting on that drive and then spend a few extra dollars to get more quality,” he said.
So why does Backblaze continue to use Seagate drives? They’re significantly cheaper, even with the added expense of replacing them more often, says Klein. And because there’s so much redundancy built into Backblaze’s datacenters, there’s no risk of data loss, he says.
I’m somewhat undecided on how to view this issue. On the one hand, data derived from the life stories of 27,000 drives is impressive. But Seagate is correct when it says the drives are being used for purposes they were not designed for. Why Hitachi and Western Digital drives, which are also consumer models, lasted longer in the Backblaze data center is unclear.
I’m not at all prepared to say you should avoid Seagate drives. In fact, I have one on my desk that I use for backup. I suspect that this controversy will continue, and I’ll update you with more information when I have it.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.