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How should I go about shipping hard drives?

Hard drives have a treacherous journey from data centers to archival storage. Shipping hard drives the right way ensures their safety.

A hard drive company executive once told me that he was looking out the window at the airport in St. Louis and...

saw a baggage handler throwing boxes across the tarmac. A little closer look and he realized that these were Styrofoam-cased hard drives. He'd just found the cause of a major out-of-box quality problem.

The art of shipping hard drives is a tricky one. Drives are fragile in two ways. First, alignments are critical in a lot of the assemblies in the drive. Misalign the disks or the spindle by even a thousandth of an inch and your hard drive becomes a paperweight. Second, the recording heads are fragile. Shock and vibration cause them to ping up and down on the disks, possibly cracking the component material ferrite.

I've seen drives delivered in an OEM cardboard wrapper inside a reused outer box filled with packing peanuts. This OEM wrapper isn't designed for individual shipping, and the heavy drive simply pushes away packing peanuts. It won't work consistently.

When shipping a hard drive around, assume the worst will happen. First, bag and seal the drive, as they don't like high humidity and water can kill them. Next, wrap the drive in packaging material before adding multiple layers of cardboard, with spacers between layers. Use foam inserts -- available from preformed shapes to injected foam -- to hold the boxed drive in place. Do not use soft foam. The key, however, is the outer box. It should be considerably larger than the drive box itself to allow for shock dissipation; use a box with double-walled, sturdy construction. If you're shipping a set of hard drives, the rules change. Create foam inserts with slots for the boxed or bagged drives to fit into, and then ship the bunch of drives in one outer box to your data archive location.

Labeling is crucial. Put a shock label or a "fragile electronic equipment" sticker on it, and the odds someone steals it increase quickly. Instead, most mail-order shippers use boxes labeled as soup or another low-value product.

If the data merits it, using a solid-state drive (SSD) gets around almost all of the shock and vibration issue of hard drives -- packaging can be much lighter and boxes smaller. It should even be safe to ship 2.5-inch SSDs wrapped in express envelopes.

None of the above solutions are perfect. There are always going to be handlers who want to throw things.

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