Group issues Y2K hard drive warning

Many computer manufacturers recommend rebooting computers after the date rollover to ensure all Y2K fixes, but that action could cripple hard drives, according to a security group.

Companies rebooting computers because of the Y2K technology glitch had better think again.

Many computer manufacturers recommend restarting systems after the date rollover to ensure all Y2K fixes, such as BIOS and driver updates, are in place.

But that action could cripple hard drives, rendering systems useless and compromising valuable data, according to the Systems Administration Networking and Security (SANS) Institute. The danger is greatest for systems many companies depend on the most: those that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are rarely shut down.

"It would be terribly sad if our defensive actions were the ones that actually caused the damage we were trying to avoid," said Alan Paller, director of research for SANS.

The problem is grunge buildup around a hard drive's slider assembly, which houses the read/write head. Grunge is made up mostly of lubricant and media particles. If the grunge buildup is heavy, the slider--a ceramic air bearing that moves over the disk--can stick to the Landing Zone, the area where it rests when the disk is not spinning. If the slider gets stuck, the hard drive could fail, damaging or destroying data.

Paller warned grunge buildup is no small problem. He recounted the story of a big-three PC manufacturer losing 28 out of 50 systems during maintenance rebooting several years ago. Out of desperation, the company dropped damaged drives on the ground, which loosened stuck sliders and restored 10 units for use.

SANS recommends spinning down hard drives or shutting down systems for a short period, no more than 30 seconds, which helps remove some grunge from the slider but lessens the likelihood of the mechanism sticking to the Landing Zone. Companies should next run non-destructive storage diagnostic software to test the drive, and then proceed with the planned Y2K power down and restart.

"It isn't that much grunge, and it's a way to get rid of what seems to be the main amount that will get you stuck," Paller said. "It sounds silly to do a temporary stop, but that's a good solution. No one would have thought of that. It's not intuitive. You would have to know physically how that disk works to think of it."

To prevent future problems, companies should spin down hard drives about once a month to minimize the buildup of grunge. Newer drives will build up grunge more slowly, according to SANS.

With the date rollover just days away, some companies may have to scramble to make last-minute preparations to protect their data and have backup systems in place.

At a time when manufacturers can lose $100,000 for every hour of down time, or e-commerce operations can lose thousands of customers a day to competitors, this kind of failure to critical systems is unthinkable, Paller said.

And, he warned, it goes without saying that companies should always back up their data, particularly before resetting systems on Jan. 1.

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