It sees a hard disk death in your future

The four most terrifying words that can pop up on your screen are File system not found. Even if you smack the computer and repeatedly press the reset button, this message is usually terminal and indicates that your hard disk is toast. Hard disks’ mean time between failures (MTBF) rates—which typically fall in the range of 300,000 to 800,000 hours (or, roughly, 34 to 91 years)—are simply statistical averages. These numbers don’t guarantee hard disk immortality.

LC Technology International’s Intelli-SMART 2.0 can’t keep a potentially doomed hard disk from dying, but it can let you know when your hard disk is on its way out the door. Whether you’re responsible for a large organization’s Information Store (IS) or simply the data on your workstation, Intelli-SMART can ease your anxieties about unexpected hard disk failures.

To understand Intelli-SMART, you first need to understand Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology. SMART is an open-standard disk analysis technology incorporated into hard disk electronics. SMART continually monitors hard disk operation parameters—such as head alignment, data integrity of the magnetic media, rotational speed, IDE module operations, and temperature. If SMART detects a deviation from acceptable parameters, it translates these indications that the hard disk might be on the verge of failure into codes that it then passes to the hard disk’s internal registers.

Without software to read the registers and alert you, you can’t know whether the hard disk’s SMART system has issued a probable failure code. Intelli-SMART is one such software program that offers several options for notifying you when SMART finds signs of trouble.

Intelli-SMART ships on a CD-ROM that includes online documentation; the program’s Help files duplicate this documentation. Intelli-SMART runs on Windows 2000, Windows NT, Windows Me, and Windows 9x systems with ATA or SCSI drives in standalone or RAID configurations. I installed the product first on an NT 4.0 Service Pack 4 (SP4) computer with a Seagate Technology Barracuda 4XL ST34572W SCSI hard disk.

Intelli-SMART installation is a standard Windows wizard procedure. To install Intelli-SMART on a SCSI system, you first need to load the 32-bit Advanced SCSI Programming Interface (ASPI) drivers that the installation CD-ROM provides. Loading the drivers is an option in the product’s setup wizard. From the wizard, I also selected the destination directory for the software, confirmed the selection, and verified that I wanted to run Intelli-SMART as a system process, and about 15 seconds later, setup had finished. At this point, I needed to reboot the computer.

Next, I configured Intelli-SMART. I clicked the system tray icon to display the program’s status and options tabs: Drives, Volumes, Configuration, Log, and About. I selected the Volumes tab, which provides simple statistics about the selected hard disk. This tab also lets you monitor disk utilization and configure alerts for when free space drops below a particular level. I selected the Alert if free space falls below check box and set the level at 10 percent of the hard disk’s overall capacity. You can also enter a number of megabytes as the minimum free space level.

You set alert and SMART status-check options from the Configuration tab, which Figure 1 shows. I left the frequency at which the program checks SMART status at the default of every 5 minutes and configured Intelli-SMART to check disk space every 60 minutes. Setting these checks to run at relatively infrequent intervals doesn’t affect disk activity because polling the registers for fault codes is an unobtrusive process. The maximum interval for SMART status and disk space checks is 480 minutes; the minimum is 5 minutes.

From the Configuration tab, I also set options for Intelli-SMART alerts. I accepted the two default options for local alerts: Display a message and Flash the system tray icon. The Play the sound option is probably the most noticeable alert format, especially because you can choose any .wav file on your system as an alert sound. However, my computer is so infrequently out of my sight that I didn’t select this option.

I also configured remote notification. This option is important if the systems you’re monitoring aren’t within eyeshot. Because I use SMTP with my default mailer, I only needed to enter in the Send an email message to text box the address to which I wanted Intelli-SMART to send alerts. Messaging API (MAPI) environments require you to enter additional information in the Mail application profile text box. If you want to override your default mailer, you can select Use custom setup, ignore default mail application and enter the appropriate information. If you click Send test email, Intelli-SMART sends a message to the address to which you’ve directed Intelli-SMART alerts. Your configurations take effect only after you click Apply Configuration.

In addition to installing Intelli-SMART on the NT system, I installed the product on Win2K Professional, Windows Me, and Win98 systems. If the system uses an IDE hard disk, the product enables a Test function on the Drives tab. After you install the product, you can click Test to exercise the hard disk in an attempt to reproduce any error codes that SMART might already be sending to the registry. The test results in a pass or fail notice, depending on whether the program detects SMART errors.

After you complete the configurations, Intelli-SMART runs on autopilot. The best possible scenario is that you never hear from Intelli-SMART again.

But what happens if Intelli-SMART does find an error? I stressed an older Seagate Technology Medalist Pro ST34520N SCSI hard disk to find out. I connected the hard disk to my NT 4.0–based system, but rather than installing the disk in a bay, I let it sit outside the case. I then used a heat gun to warm the hard disk to an unacceptable temperature. Intelli-SMART’s next polling interval found a SMART code error, and my monitor displayed the dialog box that Figure 2 shows. In addition to this dialog box’s warning message, I received an email message with the same standard alert: A failure may be imminent. The simplicity of the alert is my only concern about the product; the alert tells you nothing about hard disk problems and only indicates a probable hard disk failure sometime in the future. The warning advises you to Immediately back-up your data and replace your hard disk drive but gives no information that lets you judge the urgency with which you need to perform these actions.

Also irksome is the product’s inability to run through Microsoft Management Console (MMC). However, according to the vendor, a version to be released later this year will be an MMC snap-in.

Putting the product’s less-than-robust reporting features aside, I recommend Intelli-SMART as a worthwhile utility. The product’s remote notification feature is useful to network administrators—just don’t use it as a preventive tool (to ensure the preservation of your data, you need to perform frequent system backups). Intelli-SMART claims only to alert you of possible hard disk failures before they happen, and Intelli-SMART makes good on this claim.

Intelli-SMART 2.0
Contact: LC Technology International * 727-449-0891
Web: http://www.lc-tech.com
Price: $34.95
Decision Summary:
Pros: Alert options include remote notifications
Cons: Warning message gives no specific information about hard disk problems