Hard drives, like most machines, have a limited lifespan and with most drives, it’s merely a question of when they will fail. But determining exactly when a failure will occur is difficult, if not impossible. Yet, there are utilities that can monitor a drive’s condition and help you preempt a catastrophic drive failure by replacing the drive before it dies.

One such utility for IBM and Hitachi hard drives is SMARTDefender from Kroll Ontrack. This free utility is a replacement for IBM’s old EZSMART tool and is available for download from Hitachi’s Web site. (IBM sold its hard drive division to Hitachi in 2003 and together they created Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, which is owned 70 percent by Hitachi and 30 percent by IBM.) SMARTDefender runs under Windows and can monitor SMART-capable IDE and SCSI hard drives. It doesn’t, however, support RAID controllers (e.g., ATA or SCSI), including JBOD configurations, and won’t detect RAID drives.

What is SMART?

“SMART stands for self-monitoring analysis and reporting technology. It’s a standard for predicting the likelihood of impending failure for a hard disk. The software originated at Western Digital and was later integrated into the ATA standard. You enable SMART support in the system BIOS. It’s used by drives of the ATA-3 standard and above,” Faithe Wempen wrote in her TechRepublic article, “All about IDE”.

“SMART checks a drive and establishes a threshold for its performance in several areas. It can then notify the user when any of those measurements falls below the performance threshold, possibly signaling an impending drive failure. Some of the factors it checks are head floating height, data throughput performance, spin-up time, seek error rate, seek time performance, and drive calibration retry count.”

Using SMARTDefender
The SMARTDefender download is less than 2 MB, and the installation process is extremely straightforward. After installing SMARTDefender, the SMARTDefender Monitor icon, a red shield, will appear in your system tray, letting you know that the SMART Defender is monitoring your system. Instead of just leaving SMARTDefender’s operation to chance, however, I recommend initially performing a manual test and then adjusting the SMARTDefender settings for future tests.

Running manual self-tests and checking capacity information
To manually run a test, double-click on the SMARTDefender icon or right-click and select Run | SmartDefender. Doing either will display the main SMART Defender screen. Click SMARTTests to select the type of test you want to run and the drive you want to test. There are three different tests available, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
SMARTDefender includes three different types of tests.

The Return SMART Status option simply returns the results of your last test. The Short SMART Test performs a quick self-test on the drive. The duration of the test really depends on the size of your hard disk and the speed of your machine. I ran the short test on a 100-GB hard drive on a 1-GHz Pentium 4 running Windows XP, and the test took about 1 minute to complete. The Extended SMART Test option performs an extended self-test on the drives you select, but don’t hold your breath while this one runs.

If you return to the main SMARTDefender screen by clicking Home on the toolbar, you will notice that there are two other options: SMARTStatus and CapacityInformation. SMARTStatus allows you to quickly check the health of your drives. CapacityInformation gives you drive information such as file system, capacity, percent used, percent free, cluster size, and total clusters. Both are based on SMARTDefender’s last test.

Configuring SMARTDefender settings
Once you’ve run an initial test on your drives, it’s time to configure SMARTDefender to run the types of tests that will ultimately protect your drives. There are a couple of ways that you can do this. You can access the settings section by either clicking Settings from the toolbar on the main SMARTDefender screen, or you can right-click the shield icon in the system tray and select Settings.

The Settings window allows you to configure options for both SMARTStatus and CapacityInformation. I’ll look at the simpler of the two, the CapacityInformation options, shown in Figure B, first. From the CapacityInformation screen you can choose to enable or disable capacity monitoring by selecting a check box and setting the capacity threshold. By default, this threshold is set to 95 percent.

Figure B
The Capacity screen allows you to monitor a drive’s capacity.

There are two things that you need to know about capacity testing. First, the threshold you set applies to all partitions on a drive. Second, drive capacity is checked only when a SMARTTest is run. So you won’t get a drive capacity warning message the instant that the threshold is exceeded, but rather, after the next test is run after the threshold is exceeded.

Let’s look at the SMARTStatus settings, shown in Figure C. From here you can control the testing frequency. For example, by default, tests are run every two hours. This means that if your disk starts running low on space, it could be up to two hours before you find out. You can increase the frequency of the testing, but doing so may negatively impact system performance.

Figure C
The main settings screen allows you to configure the testing frequency.

You can also control how often the status is checked, how often short tests are run, and how often extended tests are run. There is even an option to monitor the drive’s temperature. If your drive supports temperature monitoring, I highly recommend enabling this test.

Warning messages
You might be wondering what happens when a problem is detected. My drives are all healthy, so I was unable to produce a failure warning, but I was able to generate a threshold warning. A warning is displayed in a pop up window, such as the one shown in Figure D. Unfortunately, SMARTDefender doesn’t write a Windows event log or notify you in any other way. This would be a nice feature to see in future versions.

Figure D
This is what a SMARTDefender warning looks like.

The bottom line
SMARTDefender is lacking a few features, but all in all it’s a good utility; especially when you consider that it’s a freebie. I am now running SMARTDefender on every one of my computers, and I’m sure that I will sleep better at night because of it.