Hard Drive | HDD | Noise | Ontrack blog

Friday, March 6, 2020 by Lynn Walker

Can loud noises cause data loss from hard drives?

Almost everybody has heard about the noise that hard drives can make when they are about to fail. If you haven't, you best check out this blog. The noise is a likely indication that the drive has come to its end and you will experience a data loss if you don't replace it soon. However, what most people (and even some experts) don’t realize is that noise itself can be the cause of a severe hard drive failure and can even cause data loss. 

Don't get us wrong, we're not saying your hard drive will fail if you place it near your speaker when listening to your favourite Bon Jovi record. No, we mean that something entirely different. In this blog, we'll explore more. 

How Noise Impacts Hard Drives

The phenomenon of noise affecting hard drives was discovered in 2008. By 2009, it had been recorded that fire suppression systems had started to cause hard drive failures in data centers. Initially, experts thought the inert gas used in modern fire extinguishing systems was the cause of the problem, however, when they analyzed cases further, they discovered something else. After numerous tests, it became clear it wasn't the gas itself that causes the data loss, but the noise that was created when the  inert gas is pushed out of the system at high speed and pressure.

Noise Sources

In several lab tests conducted by Siemens in 2014, scientists found that most problems with hard drives occur when they are exposed to noise above 120 dB, but some hard drives experienced problems beginning at 110 dB.

Due to the microscopic tolerances inside the modern spinning hard drive, loud noises can stop them from operating and even cause permanent failure. Modern hard drives contain up to about 250,000 data tracks per inch. To read and write, the element must be within ±15% of the data track spacing. This means that since more data tracks are now located within one inch, there is almost no tolerance left when the read-/write head is offset due to sound/ noise vibration. It’s no coincidence then that issues began to occur in the second part of the last decade, right when modern hard disks began hitting the market.

In September 2016, in Romania, a failure took place in the main data center of a bank. The damage caused by the noise was severe. Customers of ING bank in the Romanian capital were not able to use their debit cards, online banking, or execute credit card transactions. There have been documented failures in Australia, and France. 

When conducting a test pressure discrepancy, the fire suspension system emitted a loud noise while expelling inert gas.  The bank claimed that the noise of the inert gas fire suspension system nozzles reached up to 130 dB, more than enough to knock the hard drive’s physical components out of alignment, putting a few dozen hard drives to a halt, losing precious data in the process. The site went offline and the bank relied solely on its backup data center, located within a couple of miles’ proximity.  It took several days to bring back the site online. The experts concluded that the servers were not protected enough to withhold these loud and high frequencies caused by the nozzles when the inert gas was released into the room.

Since inert gas fire extinguishing systems are a necessity for every data center, how can employees in charge protect themselves against such an unwanted data loss?

Here are some tips to consider to ensure your hard drives don't suffer from noise related-failure and data loss:

How to Protect a Hard Drive from Noise-Related Failure and Data Loss

  • Only use and/or purchase servers and storage systems that have special noise reduction covers attached on the sidewalls of their racks.  Several manufactures now have special doors used in their racks to reduce sharp noise.
  • Enclose the drives in noise-proof racks and keep doors of racks shut.
  • In case of a fire alarm, try to cover the siren.
  • Position siren and gas nozzle locations so they do not radiate directly on the disk drives.
  • Increase the number of suppression nozzles and decrease the spacing between them to decrease their sound levels.
  • Use SSDs or tape as storage when possible.
  • Make frequent backups and replicate critical data to an offsite location or secondary data center.

Even with these precautions in place, a fire can still occur and systems could still be harmed. You may think that your system looks almost unaffected, but smoke or other harmful gases could have gotten into the rack or the hard disks and have caused problems, which might not be obvious at first sight. If this is the case and your hard drive suffers noise-rated data loss, look for help from a professional data recovery expert