Hard disk failures have become the bugbear of resellers and systems integrators, who increasingly find themselves footing the bill to keep their customers happy.
The problem has been exacerbated by supply shortages in competitively priced capacities such as 20GB disks, turning product returns into a nightmare. Resellers have called for more quality control from vendors.
"The failure rate is horrendous, and it is right across the board," said Ron Healy, director of systems integrator Townsville Computer and Design Service. "Drives are dying at an alarming rate within 12 months of purchase. We do a lot of testing, and I would say that out of the last dozen drives at a mixture of spins, we have had to replace 10."
Resellers are having to replace the faulty drives with new ones at their own expense to keep their clients up and running.
"The failure rate is having a very big impact on our business and there has definitely been a decrease in quality in the last 12 months," said Tom Zheng, managing director of Auslandmark Computers in Sydney. "It makes it very hard to service our clients. We replace the faulty one with a new hard drive, but there needs to be more testing and quality control by the vendors."
Hard disk failures are generally regarded as a fact of life by the reseller community, but the recent increase in incidents has prompted calls for vendors to take more responsibility for quality control of the components.
"Distributors are replacing them by the handful, and their policy is really good," Healy said. "But it might take two weeks to get a replacement."
The policy of vendors like IBM is to return the drive, but more often than not these drives are put right back into the channel without the necessary testing, he said.
"Their policy is that we have to return the drive to run an IBM diagnostic, but really it is just a fancy scandisk that marks the bad sectors and puts the drives back into service. Fujitsu had a dream run until recently, but now they are failing too."
IBM would not comment on the failures.
Some resellers are more philosophical, likening the problem to that of the car industry, where new vehicles often return to the garage in their first few months on the road.
"People these days expect reliability. But as much as we talk about a throwaway society, there are trade-offs for the downward spiral in cost," said Steve Bull, managing director of Sydney-based Logical Bytes. "I would give many of the vendors the benefit of the doubt. They used to make thousands of units a month, now they make hundreds of thousands a month. It may be the same percentage that are faulty, but it is more obvious because there is more product in the market."
Other resellers are overcoming the problem by steering clients into more high-end purchases. "We purchase fairly high-level hard disks and we have a high rate of success," explained Fred Belli, help-desk administrator with Melbourne-based corporate dealer MF Computing. "I think you have to be very selective in what you purchase because we hear lots of failure stories in the lower end of the market. Even if we get a request for a cheaper product, we try and talk the client out of it. That way we minimise the support and provide the maximum uptime for our customers."
Ken Lowe, managing director of distributor BCN Technology, admitted that returns do cost money. "But I don't think it is an issue," he said. "We don't feel there is a big difference in the failure rates between today and three to four months ago, nor is it related to any particular brand."
But it is the cost of building and testing systems that is proving a sore point in the channel. When a hard drive fails, it falls on the reseller to make sure the client is functional as soon as possible. That often means lending customers disks while their faulty one is being tested.
"But it is not simply an across-the-counter replacement -- you have to mirror their systems onto the drive," Healy said. "Then you have to test and rebuild the system. Our job is to get the client back up and running, and it all comes out of the hip pocket."
As published in ARN, March 6, 2002