In line with my SysRq Post comes another bit of assumed knowledge, SMART. Let’s begin at the beginning (and stick to the PC world).
Magnetic storage is fault-prone. In the old days, when you formatted a drive, part of the formatting process was to check that each block seemed to be able to store data. All the bad blocks would be listed in a “bad block list” and the file-system would never try to use them. File-system checks would also be able to mark blocks as being bad.
As disks got bigger, this meant that formatting could take hours. Drives had also become fancy enough that they could manage bad blocks themselves, and so a shift occured. Disks were shipped with some extra spare space that the computer can’t see. Should the drive controller detect that a block went bad (they had parity checks), it could re-allocate a block from the extra space to stand in for the bad block. If it was able to recover the data from the bad block, this could be totally transparent to the file-system, if not the file-system would see a read-error and have to handle it.
This is where we are today. File-systems still support the concept of bad blocks, but in practice they only occur when a disk runs out of spare blocks.
This came with a problem, how would you know if a disk was doing ok or not? Well a standard was created called SMART. This allows you to talk to the drive controller and (amongst other things) find out the state of the disk. On Linux, we do this via the package smartmontools.
Why is this useful? Well you can ask the disk to run a variety of tests (including a full bad block scan), these are useful for RMAing a bad drive with minimum hassle. You can also get the drive’s error-log which can give you some indication of it’s reliability. You can see it’s temperature, age, and Serial Number (useful when you have to know which drive to unplug). But, most importantly, you can find out the state of bad sectors. How many sectors does the drive think are bad, and how many has it reallocated.
Why is that useful?
In the event of a bad block, you can manually force a re-allocation. This way it happens under your terms, and you’ll know exactly what got corrupted.
Next, Google published a paper linking non-zero bad sector values to drive failure. Do you really want be trusting known-non-trustworthy drives with critical data?
Finally, there is a nasty RAID situation. If you have a RAID-5 array with say 6 drives in it and one fails either the RAID system will automatically select a spare drive (if it has one), or you’ll have to replace it. The system will then re-build on the new disk, reading every sector on all the other disks, to calculate the sector contents for the new disk. If one of those reads fails (bad sector) you’ll now be up shit-creek without a paddle. The RAID system will kick out the disk with the read failure, and you’ll have a RAID-5 array with two bad disks in it — one more than RAID-5 can handle. There are tricks to get such a RAID-5 array back online, and I’ve done it, but you will have corruption, and it’s risky as hell.
So, before you go replacing RAID-5 member-disks, check the SMART status of all the other disks.
Personally, I get twitchy when any of my drives have bad sectors. I have smartd monitoring them, and I’ll attempt to RMA them as soon as a sector goes bad.