Old Data Never Die

What do you do with data stored on disks that have passed their useful life and need to be replaced and recycled?

A modern disk drive is supposed to have a mean time between failure (MTBF) in the range of 100,000 hours–which would mean about a decade of average use. But all the research reports I’ve seen (and my own experience) indicate that most storage array drives will need to be replaced about every four years (with some small percentage failing sooner). Laptop and desktop drives rotate every three years or so.

Depending on the actual duty cycle experienced, a three- or four-year-old enterprise-class drive (which should have been tested to higher tolerances than are consumer drives) could have an additional five or six years of useful life, so there’s an obvious temptation to refurbish the drive and sell it into the secondary market for reuse. If that happens, you really don’t want your data to still be there when the next owner plugs in the drive.

Failed or truly end-of-life drives should be recycled (there’s recoverable value in the rare earth metals used in their construction) rather than turned into landfill scrap. But, if they’re going to leave your control with your data still on them, you’d better be sure that you’re working with someone who will do one of two things: reliably wipe them to the point at which the data can’t be recovered or reconstructed, or guarantee that the storage platters will be destroyed during the recycling process.

You could do the wiping yourself–either with certified software or via magnetic erasure–but that takes time and can require special equipment. It’s often easier and better to hire a specialist to do that work. While many recycling specialists indicate that they will do the work for you, it’s amazing how often the devices (and, therefore, the data) entrusted to them turn up in the reuse market rather than being recycled as was promised.

Then there are the challenges associated with the increasingly common use of solid-state drives (SSDs) in both PCs and storage arrays. The latest research indicates that there might not be a totally reliable way to wipe an SSD. Because of the way the device works, the data stored there will have been migrated several times during the life of the drive. The drive design does not allow the “old” locations to be accessed once they are no longer in active use. So the “low-level” software tools that wipe regular hard disks sector by sector (or block by block) will only wipe the currently active storage locations on an SSD. Magnetic erasure doesn’t work very well, either.

One reason it’s hard to find a reliable service provider to deal with the secure wiping or recycling of drives is that there aren’t actually that many specialists. In many cases, it’s just one service line among many offered by a given vendor. The good news? There’s increasing recognition that this is a real need and that it takes a specialist to meet it. As the technology recycling and reuse industry matures, service providers will emerge that understand the problem and have an appropriate solution.

Until then, look carefully to find the few service providers that know what they’re doing and actually do it right.

John Parkinson is the head of the Global Program Management Office at AXIS Capital. He has been a technology executive, strategist, consultant and author for 25 years. Send your comments to editors@cioinsight.com.

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