Some recent real-world research (and commentary) shows that the quality and price of a disk drive has far less impact on its lifespan than conventional wisdom would have it to be. SCSI, Fibre Channel and SATA disks all fail at roughly the same rate. And the MTBF that many manufacturers claim for their drives is not supported in the study, either.

The findings of the paper lead to some very significant considerations for the IT manager:
  • You need to pay the overhead for a RAID level that can survive a disk failure while the disk array is rebuilding itself after an earlier disk failure. RAID 5 isn't good enough. The study found that disk failures are not random, and that if a disk fails in one of your disk arrays, there's a good chance that another disk will soon fail in the same disk array. NetApp, for example, addresses this problem, but it means that 7 TB of raw disk space turns into about 4.9 TB of usable disk space (at least for a FAS 3020). That's 70 percent usable.
  • Plan for disk failures during the entire lifetime of your storage devices. Disks fail far more often than the manufacturer's data would suggest, and they also fail much like any other mechanical device: the longer they've been on, the more likely they are to fail. You can't assume that a four-year refresh cycle will keep you free of disk failures. The idea that disks either fail in the first few months or after several years of use is not supported by real world observations.
  • Don't believe everything your vendor, or conventional wisdom, tells you. This isn't a recommendation of the paper, by the way, but to me it's such an obvious conclusion that it needs to be said. It's also so obvious that I'm sure you're thinking, "Well, yeah." However, not believing your vendor is a pretty significant thing to actually commit to. Most IT managers don't have the luxury of testing everything their vendors tell them. The topic is big enough to merit a post of its own. (Interestingly, a staggering number of the comments to Robin Harris' commentary on the paper were along the lines of "the results of the paper must be wrong because everyone knows blah, blah, blah." Never underestimate the power of religion, even if that religion is an adherence to a particular technology.)
The authors of the paper cite some possible reasons for these perhaps surprising findings. One of them is that disk life may depend far more on the conditions the disk operates under rather than the quality of the disk itself. Desktop disks may fail more often simply because they tend to be in nastier environments than server disks, which typically sit in a nice, clean environmentally-controlled data centre. You may have multiple disk failures in a disk array in the data centre because the room got a bit warm when you were testing fail-over to the backup air conditioning units, for example.

A reason cited for more failures in the field than the data sheet would suggest is that customers may have more stringent test criteria than the manufacturer. One manufacturer reported that almost half of drives returned to them had no problem. However, the paper reports failure rates at least four times the data sheet rates, so that doesn't explain away the difference between data sheet and observed MTBF.

As an aside, I find it rather interesting that manufacturers of disks would simply accept that half of the returns are of non-defective drives. They're implying that their customers are stupid at least half the time. Perhaps they need to consider how they qualify a disk as being failed. People don't usually take down critical systems and do hardware maintenance on a whim. They had a good reason to suspect a drive failure.

Finally, I think the paper gives some hope that the we might see more studies based on real world observations. The authors of the paper were able to collect statistically significant data from a relatively small number of sites, due in part to the rise of large data centres with lots of hardware in them. As things like Software as a Service, large ISPs, etc. make centralized IT infrastructure more common, it may actually become easier to collect, analyze and publish real world observations about the performance of IT infrastructure. This would help manufacturers and IT managers alike.