The Western Digital backup disaster


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Recently, Western Digital had a problem with a couple of their external drives. This caused a huge disaster for some users, who ended up losing all of their data. Here’s what happened, and why those who follow my backup process had no problems.

Western Digital external drive

First, let’s clear up some terminology.

A portable drive usually is slightly smaller than a smartphone. It will only have one cable – a USB cable that you connect to the computer when you want to have the computer do a backup.

An external hard drive is usually larger, like the size of a paperback book. The image pictured above is an external hard drive. These drives usually have a USB cable and also a regular power cord to plug into the wall for electricity.

Either of these types of drives can be used for a backup, but the one I use and recommend is the portable drive. For most people, it’s all they need. It can sit on top of your computer tower, or on your desk next to your laptop.

Western Digital is one of the well-known companies that manufactures hard drives. They make external hard drives, and portable drives. They have a couple of particular external drive models known as My Book Live, and My Book Live Duo. These drives have been around for a while, and they are used by literally millions of people all over the world for file storage.

What makes these drives a bit unusual is that they are connected directly to the internet. This means that the files that are stored on the drive can be shared, or you can access the drive from any computer. This is a convenience feature.

Western Digital My Book Live Duo

Western Digital My Book Live Duo

Last week, many people who use these two drives discovered a huge problem. All of their data on the drive had been wiped out. Completely erased.

When this happened, I saw some people posting things like “This is my nightmare” and “I’m totally screwed” because they were counting on those drives to store their most important things, like documents and irreplaceable pictures and videos.

The question now is, what happened, and how could it have been avoided?

As far as what happened, at this point it appears to have been a malicious attack. Some malware was able to run on the Western Digital servers, and that malicious software gave the command to reset those internet-connected external drives. So not only were the drives reset back to factory state (meaning none of the customer’s data was kept), the password that was used to get into the drive was also reset.

How could this have been avoided? I would explain this in two concepts:

  1. The first concept is what is called an air gap. This means that your backup drive should be, as much as possible, not connected to your computer or the internet or anything else – other than when it’s necessary. There should be AIR between your backup drive and your computer or the internet. For the people who lost all their files, that would not have happened if their external drive was disconnected at the time. Malicious software can’t travel through an air gap.
  2. The second concept is this saying: “3 is 2, 2 is 1, and 1 is none.” This is referring to how many places you have your files stored. You have to always assume that one of those places is going to fail. So if you have your important stuff saved in 3 places, 1 will fail, and you really only have it in 2 places. If you have it stored in just 2 places to start with, then 1 of them will fail, and you really only have it in 1 place. And if you only have your files stored in 1 place, you don’t have a backup. Because if that one place fails, you’ve lost your files.

So many of the people who used these drives made a fatal mistake. And it’s one that I see my clients make sometimes if they don’t check with me first. They say, “My computer’s hard drive is pretty full – so I’m going to free up some space, and move those files to an external drive.” But think about that – if you move them off of your computer, to your external drive, how many places are they stored? ONE. This means you do NOT have a backup. When that external drive fails, you lose.

The process I recommend for backup means that your files are stored in 3 places:

  1. The first place is on your computer. Your hard drive should be big enough to store all of your important stuff. If it’s not big enough, I can upgrade it to a larger solid state drive so that it is big enough.
  2. The second place is your portable drive. Most of the time, this drive is not connected to the computer (that’s the air gap). The portable drive is only plugged in overnight, when you’re not using the computer. The software that I install and configure backs up ALL of your stuff (including the programs) overnight, and it’s done by the time you wake up. When you get on the computer, you double check that the backup happened, and you disconnect the portable drive so that your newly backed-up data stays safe.
  3. The third place is a cloud backup service. The one I use is Carbonite. Once it’s set up, the process is completely automated. You create or edit a file in your Documents folder, and within minutes it is safely backed up on Carbonite’s servers. This means your computer and your portable drive could be completely destroyed in a fire or a hurricane, and your important files (Documents, Pictures, and others) would still be safely stored and can be retrieved later.

One thing I want to stress: I still have faith in the physical integrity of Western Digital drives. I use both Western Digital and Seagate drives, and I think they are both equally reliable. What happened recently was not a hardware failure – it was a breach of the Western Digital cloud servers. The process that I use and described above does not include having any files stored on Western Digital computers. Yes, one of the backups we use is in the cloud (Carbonite), but again – that’s just one place. If that one fails, you still have the other two.

Don’t take any chances with your important files. If you need help setting up a backup process, contact me. No backup system is 100% foolproof, but we can at least make it as reliable as possible.

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